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A Way with Words Podcast by Grant Barrett

A Way with Words Podcast

by Grant Barrett

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Running Time
50 Min.
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Weekly

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A Way with Words is public radio's humorous hour-long call-in show about the English language with authors and language experts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.


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Fighting Artichokes (Rebroadcast) - 29 August 2016


Mon, Aug 29, 2016


What's in a mascot name? Maybe you're a fan of the Banana Slugs, or you cheer for the Winged Beavers. Perhaps your loyalty lies with the Fighting Artichokes. There are some strange names for sports team out there. But what's even stranger is the origin of the word "mascot" itself. It's from a 19th-century opera! And: the host of a television show about gardening is tired of using the verb "to plant," and is desperate for an alternative. But coming up with one is harder than you might think! Plus, a word for that sinking feeling when your favorite restaurant closes. Also, a word quiz based on the party game Taboo, the history of cataract, a begrudging ode to office jargon, and an old children's song about popping the heads off of flowers.

FULL DETAILS

Come From Away, a new musical about the 7000 passengers whose planes were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, after the September 11th attacks, is not only a fine piece of theater. It's also a rich trove of Newfoundland language, including come from away, a noun that means "visitor."

Evergreen State College in Washington is certainly in the running for best school mascot, with the Geoduck. But you can’t forget the UC Santa Cruz Fighting Banana Slugs, or the Scottsdale Community College Fighting Artichokes. The term mascot itself was popularized by a 19th century French comic opera, called La mascotte. The word is also related to the Spanish term for "pet," mascota.

The Dictionary of Newfoundland English offers a look at some intriguing vocabulary from that part of the world, such as the expression best kind, meaning "in the best state or condition."

If you pronounce roof to rhyme with hoof, you're not alone. Millions of people all over the U.S. say it that way, though the pronunciation with the long o sound is more common.

You're not a true resident of Poca, West Virginia, if you're not cheering on the local high school, the Poca Dots.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski brought us a puzzle based on one of his favorite party games: Taboo. If he gave you a series of terms that all match up with a certain word—like car, clock, burglar, and siren—what word would you say goes with them?

We got a call from Nan Sterman, host of the public television gardening show A Growing Passion, who writes so much about plants that she's looking for some alternatives to the verb to plant. But what to say if you don't want to sound pretentious or stilted? What about variations such as Stick that little guy in the soil, or Bury that gem in a pot?

Fair weather to you, and snow to your heels, is one way for Newfoundlanders to wish each other good luck.

The Fibber McGee drawer is that essential place where you quickly shove a bunch of junk when you need to clean up fast and don't have the time or care to organize anything. It comes from the old radio comedy, Fibber McGee and Molly, which featured a running gag in which Fibber had a closet crammed with junk that fell cacophonously to the floor whenever he opened it.

The high school in Hoopeston, Illinois, calls its teams the Hoopeston Area Cornjerkers, and in Avon, Connecticut, the Avon Old Farms Winged Beavers are a beloved hockey team. In case you're shopping for school districts.

A cataract is not only an eye condition, it's also a waterfall. And the two uses of the word are related, in the sense that in the ancient world, a cataracta was one of those iron gates that hung outside a city, such as Pompeii, to protect against invading hoardes.

A chemist who spent years working in the pharmaceutical industry sent us an amusing sendup of corporatespeak that begins, "It is what it is, so let's all reach out and circle the wagons…" Although his jargon-laden riff wonderfully satirizes such cliched writing, it's worth noting that many find the phrase circle the wagons objectionable.

Biting the bit, akin to champing at the bit, means someone's raring to go, or out of control.

Expressions like, I don't not like that, or, You can't not like being out are, are versions of litotes, a rhetorical device used for expressing understatement.

In Newfoundland, the word wonderful is often used as an intensifier for both positive and negative things. For example, a Newfoundlander might refer to something as a wonderful loss.

There's an old children’s ditty that goes, Mama had a baby and its head popped off, which you sing while popping the top off of a dandelion or similar flower.

Is there a word for when your favorite restaurant closes? What about goneappetit?

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

Phone:
United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673
London +44 20 7193 2113
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Burn Bag (Rebroadcast) - 22 August 2016


Mon, Aug 22, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words": Slang from the 19th century. The slang coming out of Victorian mouths was more colorful than you might think. A 1909 collection of contemporary slang records clever terms for everything from a bald head to the act of sidling through a crowd. Plus, how to remember the difference between CAV-al-ry and CAL-va-ry. And: what's the best way to improve how introverts are perceived in our society? For starters, don't bother asking for help from dictionary editors. Also, collieshangles, knowledge box, nanty narking, biz bag, burn bag, yuppies, and amberbivalence.

FULL DETAILS

Mind the grease is a handy phrase to use when you're trying to sidle through a crowd. It's found in 1909 volume of English slang called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Speaking of greasy, in those days something extravagant might be described as butter upon bacon.

If you're telling a story involving someone with an accent, and while relaying what so-and-so said, you imitate that person's accent, is that cool? If your retelling starts to sound offensive or gets in the way of good communication, best to try paraphrasing rather than performing.

Collieshangles is an old Scottish term for a quarrel, possibly deriving from the notion of two collie dogs fighting.

We've previously discussed the term going commando, meaning "dressed without underwear." It first appears in print in 1974, but likely goes back further than that. The scene in a 1996 episode of Friends, wherein Joey goes commando in Chandler's clothes, likely popularized the saying.

A Chicago-area listener suggests that approaching to a yellow traffic light and deciding whether or not to go for it might be described as amberbivalence. It's somewhat like that decision you face when coming toward what you know is a stale green light—do you gun it or brake it?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski wasn't savvy enough way back when to snag an email address like john@aol.com, but he was clever enough to come up with a game about apt email addresses that serve as a pun on the word at. For example, a prescient lawyer might have claimed attorney@law.com.

What's the difference between cavalry and calvary? The first of these two refers to the group of soldiers on horseback, and is a linguistic relative of such "horsey" words as caballero, the Spanish horse-riding gentleman, and cavalcade, originally a "parade of horses." The word calvary, on the other hand, derives from the Latin calvaria, "skull," and refers to the hill where Jesus was crucified, known in Aramaic as Golgotha, or "place of the skull."

Knowledge box is an old slang term for noggin; one 1755 describes someone who "almost cracked his knowledge box."

An introvert in Baltimore, Maryland, is unhappy with an online definition of introvert, and is speaking up about wanting it changed. The definition describes an introvert as someone preoccupied with their own thoughts and feelings—such as a selfish person, or a narcissist. The problem is, Google's definitions come from another dictionary, and dictionary definitions themselves come from perceived popular usage. So the way to change a definition isn't to petition lexicographers, but to change the popular understanding of a term.

What's the female equivalent of a man cave? Some people are promoting the term she shed.

Ann Patchett, the author of This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, among other books, has some great advice about writing. She says the key is to practice writing several hours a day for the sheer joy of getting better, and find the thing that you alone can say.

The term biz bag, meaning a bag to stuff your discarded items in, comes from an old commercial for Biz stain-removing detergent.

If you're looking for a little nanty narking, try going back to the 19th century and having a great time, because that's a jaunty term the British used for it back then.

Betamax players and hair metal bands may be trapped in the 1980's, but the term yuppie, meaning "young urban professional," is alive and well. Dink, meaning dual income, no kids, is also worth throwing around in a marketing presentation.

In the world of covert secret agents, a burn bag is the go-to receptacle for important papers you'd like to have burned rather than intercepted by the enemy.

A listener from Santa Monica, California, says he's going to mow something down, as in, he's going to eat a huge amount of food really fast. But when he writes it, he spells mow as mau, and pronounces it to rhyme with cow. Ever heard of this?

A fly-rink, in 19th-century slang, is a bald head—perfect for flies to skate around on!

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

Phone:
United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673
London +44 20 7193 2113
Mexico City +52 55 8421 9771

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
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Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
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Copyright 2016, Wayword LLC.



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Bingo Fuel (Rebroadcast) - 15 August 2016


Mon, Aug 15, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words": "If you come to a fork in the road . . . take it!" Baseball legend Yogi Berra was famous for such head-scratching observations.. What most people don't realize, though, is that the former Yankees star often wasn't the first person to say them. As Berra himself once quipped, "I really didn't say everything I said." Speaking of Yankees, do you know what a "Yankee dime" is?  Here's a hint: it's wet, made with love, and you can't take it to a bank. "It's all downhill from here, y'all"--which is not always a bad thing. Plus, nice vs. kind, premises vs. premise, a time-travelling word quiz, drunk as Cooter Brown, footing the bill, and some new words for the opposite of avuncular.

FULL DETAILS

It's such a delight to hear Yankee legend Yogi Berra deliver his Yogisms that it's easy to overlook the fact that he likely didn't make up most of them. Of course, that doesn't make lines like You can observe a lot by watching any less profound. But if you're interested in the accuracy of quotes attributed to him or someone else, start with linguist Garson O'Toole's Quote Investigator.

If someone's drunk as Cooter Brown, they're pretty darn intoxicated. The saying comes from the word cooter, meaning box turtle, and alludes to a turtle swimming around in its own drink.

Another great Yogism: It's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.

A San Diego, California, listener shares some slang used by her father, who was a Navy fighter pilot. To bang off the cat is to take off from an aircraft carrier. The meatball refers to the landing system that requires lining up with an amber light. And bingo fuel is the exact minimum amount of fuel a jet needs to get back and land on its designated runway. Some of these terms pop up in a 1954 New York Times Magazine article called Jet-Stream of Talk.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has built a time machine for this word game that requires guessing the imaginary early version of nouns like sawhorse and cauliflower. If he gets caught in the machine, though, anything can happen!

The idiom two heads are better than one doesn't exist in quite the same form in Spanish, but there is a variation that translates to, "four eyes are better than two." In Hungarian, there's a phrase that's simply, "more eyes can see more." And Turkish has a saying that translates to, "one hand has nothing, two hands have sound."

A listener who works with computers asked about the difference between premise and premises, especially when it comes to the idea of on- or off-premises computing. Going back to the 1600's, the term premises has meant a "location" or "site," but along the way, we've allowed it be used with singular and plural verb forms. When cloud computing came along, there was no longer the need to reference multiple sites, but some people still use the plural form.

We say we foot the bill when we pay for something simply because when you're totalling up figures on an account ledger, the total comes at the bottom of the sheet—or, the foot.

With the idiom it's all downhill from here, the meaning depends on the context. With an optimistic tone, it means that something's heading toward an inevitably good ending, but there are times in business uses where it refers to an unhappy fate.

When asked about a popular restaurant, Yogi Berra supposedly replied: Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded. Actually, though, that saying has been around since before Berra was born.

Gary Provost, author of Make Your Words Work, made a career of offering great writing advice, including: "Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety."

What's the difference between the words kind and nice? It's perhaps best described as the difference between demeanor and. behavior. Being nice refers to how you appear to be, whereas kindness refers to how you act, and what you do for others.

A listener from Concord, North Carolina, sent along an example of why learning English as a second language can be so challenging: "Yes, English can be weird. It can be understood through tough, thorough thought though."

When it comes to job titles, the prepositions of and for can seem interchangeable and arbitrary, but they mean slightly different things. Of, as in a Dean of Student Conduct, is in charge of a particular area by themselves, whereas a Vice President for Business Affairs would be someone who's been given responsibility for an area that technically falls under someone else's jurisdiction.

You know that moment when you get into the car and check your phone before driving off? One listener calls that her media moment.

It's common for Southern moms to promise their children a Yankee dime if they complete a chore. The thing is a Yankee dime is a motherly kiss -- much less exciting than an actual dime. It's a phrase that plays on Yankee thrift, and goes back to at least the 1840's.

We spoke on the show recently about the term avuncular, meaning like an uncle, and some listeners responded with terms for being like an aunt. Try out auntly—or avauntular, if you're looking to impress and/or alienate someone at the reunion.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

Phone:
United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673
London +44 20 7193 2113
Mexico City +52 55 8421 9771

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
Skype: skype://waywordradio

Copyright 2016, Wayword LLC.



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Spit Game (Rebroadcast) - 8 August 2016


Mon, Aug 08, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words": People in ancient times could be just as bawdy and colorful as we are today. To prove it, we found some graffiti written on the walls in the city of Pompeii, and found plenty of sex, arrogance and good old fashioned bathroom talk etched in stone. Plus, British rhyming slang makes its way to our televisions through police shows on PBS. And a dictionary for rock climbers gives us a fantastic word that anyone can use to describe a rough day. Also, spitting game, hornswoggling, two kinds of sloppy joes, peppy sad songs, and endearing names for grandma.


FULL DETAILS

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., parts of the ancient city of Pompeii remained intact, including the graffiti written on its walls. Much of what was written, not unlike today's bathroom etchings, is naughty and boastful, with people like Celadus the Thracian claiming to be the one who "makes the girls moan."

A Tallahassee, Florida, mother who texted her daughter in a hurry accidentally asked about the "baby woes," meaning "baby wipes," and came to the conclusion that we need a new phrase: read between the autocorrect.

If you watch British police procedurals, you'll likely come across the term to grass someone, meaning "to inform on someone" or "to rat someone out." It’s a bit of British rhyming slang that originated with the 19th-century phrase to shop on someone. That gave us the noun shopper, which became grasshopper, and then got shortened to grass.

A Japanese version of the idiom the grass is always greener translates to "the neighbor's flowers are red."

The word hornswoggle, meaning "to embarrass" or "to swindle," is of unclear origin, but definitely seems of a piece with U.S. frontier slang from the 1830s and 1840s.

Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game called Dictum wherein he gives us a word, like contrary or emasculate, and we have to guess the closest bold-faced word that comes after it in the dictionary. Tougher than you might think!

A listener whose first language is Farsi wonders if the name of the grandma in the classic film An Affair to Remember, gave us the endearment nanu, for grandmother. In Mediterranean countries, words like nanu, nana, nene and nona are all common terms for "granny."

Here's a truism that often appeared scribbled in ancient wall graffiti: I wonder, oh wall, that you have not yet collapsed. So many writers' cliches do you bear.

The term spitting game, meaning "to flirt," comes from African-American slang going back to at least the 1960's, when game referred to someone's hustle. It's well covered in Randy Kearse's Street Talk: Da Official Guide to Hip-Hop and Urban Slanguage.

Martha recalls that as an English major, she nearly memorized William Zinsser's On Writing Well. He died this month at age 92, and she'll remember this quote, among others: "Ultimately, the product any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is...I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me — some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field."

A listener from northern New Jersey says that in his part of the state, a sloppy joe was not the mashed-up ground beef sandwich many of us also know as a loose meat sandwich, spoonburger, or tavern. For him, a sloppy joe was a deli meat sandwich that consisted of things like pastrami, turkey, coleslaw, Russian dressing and rye bread.

Here's a lovely bit of ancient graffiti found on the wall of an inn: "We have wet the bed. I admit, we were wrong, my host. If you ask why, there was no chamberpot."

Pro wrestling, a fake sport with a very real following, has a trove of lingo all its own that can be found in the newsletter and website PW Torch. One saying, red means green, refers to the fact that a wrestler who winds up bloody will get a prettier payout for his or her performance. And kayfabe is a wrestler's character persona, which he or she often keeps up for any public appearance, even outside the ring.

A fan of Bruce Springsteen's song "Dancing in the Dark" called to say that she's noticed the lyrics are awfully sad for such a peppy tune, and wonders if there’s a word for this phenomenon. Lyrical dissonance would do the job, but there’s also the term agathokakological, a Greek-influenced word meaning "both good and evil."

One listener followed up our discussion of classic literary passages turned into limerick form by writing one of his own, a baseball-themed poem that begins, "There once was a batter named Casey."

Vermont is one place—but not the only one—where non-natives are referred to as flatlanders, and people who've been around generations proudly call themselves woodchucks. It’s written about on Shawn Kerivan's blog, Innkeeping Insights in Stowe.

The Climbing Dictionary by Matt Samet includes a fantastic term that can be used by non-climbers as well: high gravity day, a day when all routes, even easy ones, seem impossible due to a seeming increase in gravity.

The expression to a T comes from a shortening of tittle, a word meaning a little of something. The word tittle even shows up in the bible. There's also an idiom to the teeth, as in dressed to the teeth, or fully armored-up.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

Phone:
United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673
London +44 20 7193 2113
Mexico City +52 55 8421 9771

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
Skype: skype://waywordradio

Copyright 2016, Wayword LLC.



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Pop Stand - 1 August 2016


Mon, Aug 01, 2016


When it comes to learning new things, what's on your bucket list? A retired book editor decided to try to learn Latin, and ended up learning a lot about herself. There's a word for someone who learns something late in life. And when it comes to card games, how is it that the very same game goes lots of different names? What you call Canfield, other people may call Nertz! Finally, a bit of vulture culture: Words for these birds depend on what they're doing: A kettle of vultures is swirling in the air, while a group of vultures standing around eating is called … a wake. Plus, cat's eyes, Bott's dots, dumpster fire, spagglers, Dan Ratherisms, pussle-gut, and let's blow this pop stand.


FULL DETAILS

A restaurant review in the Myanmar Times describes a steak that "could not have been more middle-of-the-road if it was glued to a cat's eye." This analogy makes sense only if you know that cat's eye is a term for the reflective studs in the middle of a road that help drivers stay in their own lanes.

Card games often go by several different names, like Canfield and Nertz, or Egyptian Racehorse and Egyptian Rat Screw, or B.S. and Bible Study. These names, and the rules for each, vary because they're more often passed from person to person by word-of-mouth rather than codified in print. Incidentally, the use of the word Egyptian in various card game names stems from the fact that playing cards supposedly originated in Egypt.

A woman in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, say that there, if someone's fly is open, instead of saying XYZ for Examine Your Zipper, many people say Kennywood is open. Kennywood, it turns out, is a nearby amusement park.

A San Diego, California, woman is baffled by her husband's saying: If a frog had a pouch, he'd carry a gun. It has to do with wishing for the impossible, similar to the saying If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. It's one of many Dan Ratherisms, folksy sayings popularized by the Texas-born CBS newscaster.

The trendy term dumpster fire, meaning "a chaotically horrible situation," may have originated with sportswriters.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's quiz is a challenge to find the odd word out, etymologically speaking. For example, which word doesn't belong in the following group? Bigot, saloon, quiche, tornado.

In Spanish, mordida literally means "a bite," but it's a kind of bribe. It predates the English phrase put the bite on someone by more than a hundred years. One proposed etymology for the Spanish term is that divers rescuing treasure from wrecked Spanish galleons were allowed, on their final dive, to keep as many coins as they could bring up crammed into their mouths. Another story goes that the underlings of a Spanish nobleman collected a special tax to help pay for his extensive dental work, then simply continued the practice after the work was paid for. Both of these colorful stories are probably too colorful to be believed. Mordida! is also a popular cry at birthday celebration in parts of Latin America, where the birthday boy or girl is encouraged by cheering guests to plunge face first into a cake.

A listener in Abilene, Texas, says that his Maryland relatives always referred to asparagus as spagglers, so he was shocked when he got to college and realized no one else knew what he was talking about. This vegetable goes by lots of other names, including spargus, spiro grass, asper guts, dusty roots, and aspirin grass. In upstate New York, it's even called Martha Washington or Mary Washington.

No word if Dan Rather coined this phrase, but shakier than cafeteria jello describes something that's pretty jiggly indeed.

Is it a pitched battle or a pitch battle? Originally, a pitched battle was conducted according to traditional rules of warfare, which called for combat in a prearranged time and place. The pitch in this term has to do with positioning, in much the same sense as to pitch a tent.

Bott's dots are little round pavement markers, named for California highway engineer Elbert D. Botts.

Having retired as a New York book editor, and looking for a way to fill her time, Ann Patty embarked on the study of college-level Latin. She chronicles those studies and the life lessons learned in Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin. Someone who begins to learn late in life is called an opsimath. What's on your opsimathic bucket list?

A caller from Vermont says his Mississippi-born grandfather always called him a pussle-gut, and admonish him about an unseen wampus cat. The former, also spelled puzzle-gut, simply means "a fat or pot-bellied person," the pussle being related to pus, as in the bodily ooze. American folklore is full of stories about the wampus cat, a terrifying, hybrid mythical creature.  

A listener in Springfield, Illinois, recalls that an elderly relative would respond to the question "How are you?" with the answer Forked end down. By that, he meant, "I'm fine." If you've ever drawn a stick figure, you know that the forked end is where the feet are, so forked end down means someone's feet are firmly planted on the ground. In the American West, forked end up long referred to the unfortunate position of a rider thrown from a horse.  

A hike in San Diego's Mission Trails Regional Park has Martha pondering terms for turkey vultures. A flock of vultures in flight is called a kettle, a committee, or a volt, while a group of vultures feeding on carrion is called a wake.

Let's blow this popsicle stand is an adaptation of Let's blow this pop stand, meaning to leave a place, and in a way that's showy. Think Marlon Brando in The Wild One.

The glow in the eyes of some animals is called eyeshine, and the adjective that describes such shimmering in a cat's eyes is chatoyant, from French for "cat."

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

Phone:
United States and Canada toll-free (877) WAY-WORD/(877) 929-9673
London +44 20 7193 2113
Mexico City +52 55 8421 9771

Donate: http://waywordradio.org/donate
Site: http://waywordradio.org/
Podcast: http://waywordradio.org/podcast/
Forums: http://waywordradio.org/discussion/
Newsletter: http://waywordradio.org/newsletter/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/wayword/
Skype: skype://waywordradio

Copyright 2016, Wayword LLC.



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Punch List - 25 July 2016


Mon, Jul 25, 2016


Books for sale, books for free, and wisdom passed down through the ages. Libraries aren't just repositories for books -- they're often a great place to find gently used volumes for sale. Or you can always visit a "little free library," one of those neighborhood spot dedicated to recycling your own books, and picking up new ones for free. Plus: "When two elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers" -- weighty proverbs from East Africa. Finally, the United States and the UK are separated by more than a common language: the way we talk about numbers is also surprisingly different, depending on which side of the pond you're on. Also: I don't know him from Adam, stargazy pie, my dogs are barking, and cheiloproclitic. Ruminate on that!

FULL DETAILS

The stunning play Our Lady of Kibeho, set in Rwanda, includes some powerful East African proverbs gathered by playwright Katori Hall, such as A flea can bother a lion, but a lion cannot bother a flea, and When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

A caller from Deer River, Minnesota, has lots of experience raising ruminants and wonders if the word ruminate, as in "to ponder or muse about something" stems from the image of such an animal chewing regurgitated cud. Indeed it does. In classical Latin, the word ruminare could mean either "to chew cud" or "to turn over in one's mind." Similarly, the English verb to browse originally referred to the action of an animal feeding on the buds and leaves of trees and bushes.

The phrase I don't know him from Adam suggests that if the person were standing next to the person in Western tradition thought to be earliest human being, the two would be indistinguishable. The phrase I don't know her from Adam can be used to refer to a woman who is similarly unrecognizable, but it's less common. Another variation: I wouldn't know him from Adam's off ox.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski invites us to a party to meet all of his dear "aunties" -- as in the "auntie" who makes sure your oily hair doesn't mess up the furniture.

Since the 1930's the term punch list has referred to a list of things to do, or a list of problems to fix. Although there are many proposed explanations for the origin of this term, none is definitive.

A caller from Tampa, Florida, talks about the eerie feeling she had when she heard an audio interview recorded with a speaker who at the time was unaware of his imminent death. She'd like a word to describe that feeling. Postalgia, maybe?

An Alabama woman says Minnesota-born husband has never heard an expression she's used all her life. The phrase is smell the patching, as in If he's not careful, he's going to smell the patching. The idea is that if you do something bad, it will catch up with you. In the early 19th century, patching was the piece of cloth used to tamp down gunpowder in firearms. If you're close enough to a battle to smell the patching, you're pretty darn close.

The Little Free Library movement offers a great way to unload some of your old books and discover some ones that someone else has left for the taking.

A listener in Hartford, Connecticut, is sure he's heard a word that means "an erotic attraction to lips." The word is cheiloproclitic, from ancient Greek words that mean "inclined toward lips." Grant offers a couple of other terms, jolie laide, French for "beautiful ugly," and cacocallia, from Greek words that mean roughly the same thing.

Those of us in the United States and Britain may be separated by a common language, but we're also separated when it comes to how we indicate numbers. A Numberphile video featuring linguist Lynne Murphy explains this in more depth.

If you think stargazy pie sounds romantic, you'd better be charmed by egg-and-potato pie with fish heads sticking out of it.

My dogs are barking means "My feet hurt" or "My feet are tired." As early as 1913, cartoonist Tad Dorgan was using the term dogs to mean "feet." If your "dogs" in this sense are "barking," it's as if they're seeking your attention.

In an earlier episode, we discussed visual signals used in deafening environments such as sawmills. One signal, developed in a textile mill, was holding up both hands, fingertips up and palms out, miming a gesture of pushing. That pushing motion translated to, of course, The boss, as in The boss is coming, so look sharp!

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

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Shakespeare's Insults (Rebroadcast) - 18 July 2016


Mon, Jul 18, 2016


If you don't have anything nice to say, say it like Shakespeare: Thou unhandsome smush-mouthed mush-rump! Thou obscene rug-headed hornbeast! The Shakespeare Insult Generator helps you craft creative zingers by mixing and matching the Bard's own words--perfect for the wanton swag-bellied underskinker in your life.  Plus, how do you feel when you say "Thank you" and the person replies "No problem"? That response bothers many people--but should it? Plus, what happens when a married couple doesn't gee-haw together. Also: the origins of shimmy and smidge, ham-and-egger, a techie word quiz, double possessives, and enough food to feed Coxey's army.

FULL DETAILS

For a compendium of slanderous Elizabethan expressions, try Barry Kraft's book, Shakespeare Insult Generator. There are more sources online for sneering Shakespearean phrases and randomly generated insults inspired by the Bard, perfect for the obscene rug-headed hornbeast in your life.

Don't capitalize names of seasons unless they're part of a proper noun, such as Summer Olympics or Spring Formal. Unlike the names of months and days of the week, seasons aren't eponymous, meaning they don't derive from proper names.

Here's a fun paraprosdokian: I like work. It fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.

Swag is not an acronym for Stuff We All Get. In fact, most acronymic "etymologies" are complete hogwash. Swag, commonly used to mean "free stuff," goes back to the 1700's and refers to the ill-gotten swag, or booty, of a thief or pirate.

The Shakespeare Insult Generator tipped us off to a handful of booty-themed disses, including rump-fed, which refers to someone who is less than callipygian.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game of portmanteaus for the tech age, like a fanciful word for when you spend hours buying books online to the point where you're unconscious.

When two people can't gee-haw together, it means they don't get along. The terms gee-haw, or gee and haw, come from farming, where a trained animal obeys a command to go left or right--to gee or haw, in other words. Noncompliant animals don't gee-haw.

There's a hot debate going on about the use of no problem instead of you're welcome, in response to thank you. But there's nothing wrong with this phrase. The expression can't be broken down semantically to prove it's disrespectful; it's more a matter of what people are used to, and the differences seem to break down along age lines.

A ham-and-egger job, meaning a weak effort or a dud, comes from boxing, where a ham-and-egger fighter doesn't have much fight in him, it's just someone doing it to earn a meal. The idiom goes as far back as at least 1918, when it showed up in a U.S. Navy journal.

Perhaps you have a panic monkey in your life. That's someone who starts flailing their hands anytime they're nervous.

In 1894, the U.S. was in an economic depression, an Ohio businessman named Jacob Coxey led a march on Washington to protest national economic policies. This motley crew came to be known as Coxey's army, and the phrases enough food to feed Coxey's army, or enough grub to feed Coxey's army, meaning "a whole lot of food," showed up in print soon after. Both Coxey's army and Cox's army have also been applied to any ragtag group, the latter influenced by a much bigger march on Washington in 1932, that was led, as it happens, by Father James Renshaw Cox.

You can spitball ideas all you want, but spiffball is not a real variation of the term.

A young woman in Charleston, South Carolina, owns a boa constrictor named Wayne, and wonders if it's correct to say that her father isn't a fan of Wayne's. Such double possessives are fine, and have been in use for centuries.

If you need a Shakespearean insult, there's always unhandsome smush-mouthed mush-rump.

A Fort Worth, Texas, hospital worker says she's forever telling her patients to move over on the gurney just a smidge or a tidge, and wants to know if they're real words. Smidge is a shortening of smidgeon; tidge is likely a mix of tad and smidge. She also wonders about the shimmy, meaning "to move," which comes from the name of a dance in the early 1900's.

Next time you're in a bar and in need of an insult, say it like Shakespeare: Thou wanton swag-bellied underskinker! An underskinker is an assistant tapster who draws beer for customers.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

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Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

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Pebble Picker (Rebroadcast) - 11 July 2016


Mon, Jul 11, 2016


Right off the bat, it's easy to think of several everyday expressions that derive from America's pastime. Including right off the bat. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary catalogues not just those contributions but also more obscure terms like "pebble picker," and explains why a fastball is called a "Linda Ronstadt." Plus, as more transgender people are publicly recognized, there's a debate about which pronouns to use. And who in the world would give a one-star review on Amazon to … Herman Melville's Moby-Dick? Plus, the plural of hummus, tear the rag off the bush, to boot, synesthesia, paper stretchers, wet washes, and the verb to podcast.

FULL DETAILS

Right off the bat, you can probably name a long list of common idioms that come from baseball. For example, right off the bat. But how about some of the more obscure ones, like the Linda Ronstadt? In a nod to Ronstadt's song "Blue Bayou," her name is used in baseball to refer to a ball that blew by you. Paul Dickson has collected this and hundreds of other baseball terms in his comprehensive book, The Dickson Baseball Dictionary.

The plural of hummus isn't easy to pin down, because although the word's ending looks like a Latin singular, it's actually Arabic.  For waiters and party hosts serving multiple plates of hummus, it's not wrong to say hummuses, but plates of hummus will do just fine.

The Spanish idiom, arrimar el ascua a su sardina, literally means "to bring an ember to one's own sardine." It means "to look out for number one," the idea being that if a group is cooking sardines over a fire, and each person pulls out a coal to cook his own fish, then the whole fire will go out. So the idiom carries the sense not only of being selfish, but the effects of that selfishness on the larger community.

Something excellent can be said to tear the rag off the bush, or take the rag, and it likely comes from old Western shooting competitions, where the winner would shoot a rag off a bush. The Oxford English Dictionary shows examples in print going back to the early 19th century.

A listener in St. Cloud, Minnesota, reports that when she first started in the printing business, new employees would be hazed with the prank assignment of finding a "paper stretcher" to make a web—the big sheet of paper that newspapers are printed on—a little larger. There is, of course, no such thing, and sending someone to find one is just one of many ways to tease newbies. Also, strippers in the newspaper business are much tamer than the common stripper—it's just a term for those who prep images and copy for the printing plates.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski scoured Amazon for 1-star reviews of classic literature and turned them into a puzzle about some readers' questionable taste. For example, what novel isn't even about fishing, since a whale is a mammal?

The saying to boot comes from an Old English word bot, meaning "advantage" or "remedy." It's related to the contemporary English words better and best, so if something's to boot, it's added or extra.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote, in a Supreme Court opinion no less, that "a word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used."

As more transgender people are publicly recognized, what pronouns should we use to describe them? The best thing to do is find a polite way to ask how someone would like to be addressed. Epicene pronouns like they, ze, and others have had a hard time sticking. A good starting place for exploring transgender issues is Laverne Cox's documentary The T-Word.

People with synesthesia have long been known to associate sensations like sounds with others, like seeing certain colors. New research suggests that color associations with certain letters—at least for individuals born after 1967—are largely influenced by Fisher Price fridge magnets.

One caller says his grandma's favorite parting phrase was See you in the wet wash! A wet wash was an old-fashioned facility for washing—though not drying—laundry.  But it's anyone's guess as to why someone would allude to soaked laundry when taking their leave.

We've spoken before about It'll be better when you're married, often used to console someone who just had a small scrape or cut. A Chicago-area listener wrote us to say that in such cases, her mom's phrase was Quick, get a spoon!

The word podcasting is commonly used to refer to making podcasts, but it's also used by some as the verb for listening to downloading or listening to podcasts. The language around podcasts has always been tricky since the format was released—Apple initially disliked the use of pod—and practitioners like the TWiT network advocated for netcast.

Every time Martha tries naming all 26 letters in the alphabet, she only comes up with 25. But she can't remember Y.

The exclamation crime in Italy is a variation of criminently, or criminy, both euphemisms for Christ.

In baseball, a pebble picker, or pebble hunter, is a fielder who picks up a pebble from the ground after a missed catch, as if to blame the pebble for his own error.  In the world at large, the term is a jab at someone who can never admit a mistake.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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There Once Was A Gal From (Rebroadcast) - 4 July 2016


Mon, Jul 04, 2016


Ever try to write a well-known passage in limerick form? It's harder than you think. How about this one:  "There once was a lady who's sure / All that glitters is golden and pure/ There's a stairway that heads up to heaven, it's said / And the cost of the thing she'll incur." Plus, the diacritical mark that readers of The New Yorker magazine find most annoying. And how do you really pronounce the name of that big city in Southern California--the one also known as the "City of Angels"? Also, clopening, Z vs. Zed, seeding a tournament, the wee man and Old Scratch, and a word game based on the novels of Charles Dickens.

FULL DETAILS

What do readers of The New Yorker complain about most when they write letters to the editor? Those two dots above vowels in words like cooperate and reelect. The diaeresis, as those marks are known, has remained in use at the magazine ever since the copy editor who planned on nixing it died in 1978, and the whole saga is chronicled in fellow New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris's new memoir, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

March Madness is over, but the confusion lingers as to why teams are seeded in tournament brackets. The best theory is that brackets resemble sideways trees, and the teams are spread out evenly so the best can prosper—just like a in a garden.

A Southernism we love: You might as well go out and let the moon shine down your throat. It means you're taking medicine that won’t be effective or eating something flavorless. Not to be confused with pouring moonshine down your throat, which would be both flavorful and effective.

Americans pronounce the letter Z like "zee," while those in other English-speaking countries say "zed." That's because Noah Webster proposed lots of Americanized pronunciations and this is one of the few that stuck. David Sacks' book Letter Perfect is a great resource for more on our alphabet.

Baristas and retail workers are all too familiar with the dreaded clopen shift. You're assigned to close the shop one night, then turn around and work the opening shift early the next morning.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game about Dirkens novels—that is, Dickens novels with one letter in the title changed. For example, what's the Dirkens novel about a domicile where tired orphans can take some time off work, or a shorter Dirkens novel that's just a listing of garnishes in cocktails?

A longstanding injunction against mentioning the devil by name is the reason why terms like Old Ned, Old Billy, and Old Scratch have come to be euphemisms for his unholiness.

Bonspiel is a word for a curling match, and derives from the Dutch term spiel, meaning "game."

Saying I feel, instead of saying I think or I suppose, is both prevalent and controversial, particularly among women. A Stanford study found that prefacing a sentence with I feel, instead of I think, is more likely to get others to really listen.

A favorite quotation from highly quotable Terry Pratchett: Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can. Of course, I could be wrong.

If you're looking for an alternative version of Hamlet's soliloquies, a member of our Facebook group has been turning famous passages from literature into limerick form with entertaining results.

Los Angeles, though founded by Spanish speakers, was very, very Anglo by the early 20th century. The "original" pronunciation of Los Angeles has been muddied for a long time.

Our lord of the literary limerick on our Facebook group doesn't stop with plays and novels. He also remixed song lyrics, like in this rendition of Stairway to Heaven.

When Scots use the term wee man, they're referring to the devil. The Dictionary of the Scots Language is a fantastic and free resource for all terms Scottish, including blethering skite or bladderskate, which is a great thing to call a chatty rascal.

The German idiom, Ich bin fast im Dreieck gesprungen! is a way of indicating that you're outraged. Literally, though, it means "I almost jumped in triangles."

One listener's term, tee-ella-berta, is among hundreds of euphemisms for the derriere, including tee-hiney, tee-hineyboo, and tee-hinder.

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

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Shiver Me Timbers (Rebroadcast) - 27 June 2016


Mon, Jun 27, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words": Careful what you criticize! Not long ago, some words that sound perfectly normal today were considered gauche and grating on the ear. If the complainers had had their way, we couldn't say the word "pessimism" or use "contact" as a verb! Also, we'll settle another debate once and for all: is it "a historic" or "an historic"? Plus, what are you doing for Inside-Out Day? Also, bed lunch, sweven, hinky, johnny gowns, the real meaning of shiver me timbers, and more.

FULL DETAILS

We get lots of calls and emails that take a pessimistic look at the way language changes-- which reminded us that the word pessimism itself, just 100 or so years ago, was derided by the curmudgeons of old. People thought the word pessimism was a lazy, inaccurate replacement for "despondency."

If you're looking for yet another reason to buy an infant a present, there's always Inside Out Day, which some people celebrate as the day when a baby has been out of the womb as long as they were in it.

Singultus, which comes from a Latin word for "sobbing" or "dying breath," is a fancy way of describing a not-so-fancy affliction: the hiccups.

Did pirates ever actually say shiver me timbers? And why would they be shivering in the Caribbean, anyway? Actually, this saying has nothing to do with being cold, and pirates probably didn't say it. The phrase goes back to the 1700's and was popularized in books such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Shiver, in this sense, means "to split in two." Shiver me timbers, in the imagined pirate lingo, refers to a storm or siege splitting the wooden beams of a ship.

A bed lunch is one way to refer to a late night meal, right before bedtime.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz about the ties that bind various sets of three words. For example, what do essay, excess, and decay have in common?

The a historian vs. an historian debate has a pretty straightforward answer: a historian is the correct way to write and say it.

Lyricists take note: sweven is another term for a dream, which should come in handy when looking for words that rhyme with heaven, eleven, Devin, or leaven.

Hinky, or hincty, is a term going back to the 1920's that has meant both "snobbish" and "haughty," or, more commonly, suspicious. A police officer from Grove City, Pennsylvania, calls to say his older colleagues often use the word to describe someone who arouses suspicion.

Fever is often diagnosed with an indefinite article attached—as in, you have a fever—but it was some time between the 1940s and 1960s that we added the article. And in the Southern United States, it's still not uncommon to hear someone say they have fever.

Contact, when used as a verb, is another word that once prompted peeving. In fact, in the 1930s, an official at Western Union lobbied for a company-wide ban on the word, which he deemed a hideous vulgarism compared to the phrases get in touch with or make the acquaintance of.

"These days, a chicken leg is a rare dish" might sound like an odd thing to observe, but during World War II, it was among dozens of phonetically balanced sentences devised by researchers for testing cockpit transmissions and headphones in planes. The sentences use a wide variety of sounds, which is why they're still useful for testing audio today.

We have the word avuncular to mean like an uncle, but is there one word for describing someone or something aunt-like? Materteral is one option, though it's rarely used.

As author Terry Pratchett once said, "It's still magic if you know how it's done."

The slang term nation pops up several times in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a reduced form of a mild swear word. The word damnation was euphemized as tarnation, which was later shortened to nation. Nation in this sense goes back to the mid-1700's at least, and can also mean "large," "great," or "excellent."

We spoke on an earlier show about insensible losses, a medical term for things like water vapor that your body loses but you don't sense it. That inspired a Sacramento, California, listener to write a poem with that title about great artists who go underappreciated.

Johnny or johnny gown, meaning hospital gown, is a term most associated with New England.  

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

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Sweet Dreams - 20 June 2016


Mon, Jun 20, 2016


In deafening workplaces, like sawmills and factories, workers develop their own elaborate sign language to discuss everything from how their weekend went to when the boss is on his way. Plus, English speakers borrowed the words lieutenant and precipice from French, and made some changes along the way, but not in ways you might suspect. Finally, how do you pronounce the name of the New York concert hall you can reach with lots of practice? Is it CAR-neg-ghee Hall … or Car-NEG-ghee? Plus, no great shakes, Gomer, a limerick about leopards, foafiness, and sleep in the arms of Morpheus.

FULL DETAILS

Try this tricky puzzle: Take the words new door and rearrange their letters into one word.

How do you pronounce the name Carnegie? The Scottish industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, pronounced it with an accent on the second syllable, as his namesake the Carnegie Corporation of New York takes pains to make clear. Good luck explaining that to New Yorkers, though. They may know that the famous concert venue is named in his honor, but it's become traditional to stress the first syllable in Carnegie Hall. In the 19th century, people would have encountered his name in print first rather than hearing it by radio broadcast and incorrectly surmised it was CAR-neh-ghee, not car-NEH-ghee.

A Dallas woman says that when she rebukes the advances of the courtly old gent she's dating, he apologizes with the words I'm sorry for losing my faculties. Using the term my faculties in this sense is not all that common, but understandable if you think of one's faculties as "the ability to control impulses and behavior."

Foafiness, which derives from friend of a friend, is the condition of knowing a lot about someone even though you've never actually met, such as when you feel like you know a friend's spouse or children solely because you've read so much about them on Facebook. But is there a term for "experiential foafiness," when you feel like you've visited someplace but then realize you've only read about it or seen it in a video?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski brings a quiz based on what editors for the Oxford English Dictionary say are the 100 Most Common Words in English.

Is it okay use the word ask as a noun, as in What's our ask going to be? Or should we substitute the word question or request? Actually, the noun ask has handy applications in the world of business and fundraising, where it has a more specific meaning. It's taken on a useful function in the same way as other nouns that started as verbs, including reveal, fail, and tell.

A Burlington, Vermont, listener says that when he was a boy, his dad used to call him a little Gomer. It's a reference to the 1960's sitcom "Gomer Pyle," which featured a bumbling but good-hearted U.S. Marine from the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina. As a result, the name Gomer is now a gently derogatory term for "rube" or "hick."

Glenn Reinhardt and his 8-year-old daughter Camryn of San Antonio, Texas, co-authored a limerick that makes clever use of the words leopard, shepherd, and peppered.
 
A native French speaker wants clarification about the use of the word precipice in English.

A listener in Lashio, Myanmar, reports that a term of endearment in the local language translates as "my little liver."  

In deafening industrial workplaces, such as textile factories and sawmills, workers often develop their own elaborate system of sign language, communicating everything from how their weekend went or to straighten up because the boss is coming.

The phrase no great shakes means "no great thing" or "insignificant." The term may have arisen from the idea of shaking dice and then having a disappointing toss. If so, it would fall into a long line of words and phrases arising from gambling. Or it may derive from an old sense of the word shake meaning "swagger" or "boast."  

A listener in Montreal, Canada, asks: How do you pronounce lieutentant? The British say LEF-ten-ant, while Americans say LOO-ten-ant. In the United States, Noah Webster insisted on the latter because it hews more closely to the word's etymological roots, the lieu meaning "place" and lieutenant literally connoting a "placeholder," that is, an officer carrying out duties on behalf of a higher-up.

Why doesn't an usher ush? The word goes all the way back to Latin os, meaning "mouth," and its derivative ostium, meaning "door." An usher was originally a servant in charge of letting people in and out of a door.

A San Diego woman says her mother always tucked her into bed with the comforting wish, Sweet dreams, and rest in the arms of Morpheus. This allusion to mythology evokes a time when people were more familiar with Greek myth, and the shape-shifting god Morpheus who ruled over sleep and dreams and inspired both the word metamorphosis and the name of the sleep-inducing drug, morphine.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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How We Roll - 13 June 2016


Mon, Jun 13, 2016


If you're serious about writing a memoir, what topics should you include, and what can you leave out? And how honest can you really be about the other people in your life? Some of America's leading memoirists wrote things they lived to regret. And: America's never faced the real possibility of a female president -- until now. So, what would be the male version of "First Lady"? First Laddie? First Dude? Plus, take me out to the ballgame: why those rows of benches are called bleachers, and why baseball fans sit in a place called the stands. Plus, cry uncle, servicing customers, Boaty McBoatface, GPS art, lawnmower parents, and names for toilet-paper rolls.

FULL DETAILS

What do you call the cardboard roll inside a roll of toilet paper? Many families have their own name for it, including der der and oh-ah, oh-ah.

The bleachers in a baseball stadium are the unshaded benches that get bleached by the sun. The word stands, on the other hand, derives a 17th-century use of stand meaning a place for spectators, who either sat or stood, and is an etymological relative of the word station. The grandstand is an area of pricier seats, covered by a roof. The term grandstanding derives from the practice of baseball players showing off in front of the highest-paying spectators sitting there.

A San Diego resident who grew up in Ethiopia wonders: If U.S. presidents' wives have always been referred to as the First Lady, what title is appropriate for the male spouse of a head of state? First Gentleman? First Dude?

GPS art is the creation of a few bikers and runners who track their trips with an app and then post the image of the route they traveled online. The results so far include electronic "drawings" of Darth Vader, Yoda, and characters from Game of Thrones.  

Scrabblepoor means "extremely poor," conjuring the image of farmers having to scrape together a living by literally scratching at the dirt. The word hardscrabble is more commonly used to describe such grinding poverty.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle requires you to spot the Missing Links. For example, what do the following three names have in common? Jefferson, Franklin, Washington.

A Greencastle, Indiana, caller is bothered when his colleagues talk about servicing a customer--and with good reason. Servicing a client has long been associated with prostitution. Serving a client is a better phrase.

Britain's new polar research ship is named RSS Sir David Attenborough, even though an online vote overwhelmingly chose the name Boaty McBoatface. Versions of this playful construction go back at least as far as a 1987 episode of the television show "Friends," with a reference to Hicky McHicks from Hicksville. Since the 1940's, the Mc- element has been affixed to words to indicate something "typical of its kind." Similar examples today, like Cutie McPretty and Helpy Helperton, have a teasing tone to them.

In the 19th century, saying a man had a sneaking notion mean he had affection for a woman but was too timid to reveal it.

That familiar comfort food most often called a grilled cheese goes by a few other names, including cheese toastie and cheesewich, the latter of which is a trademarked name.

The grip on a movie set is responsible for adjusting the lights, positioning and the camera, and ensuring safety. There are various picturesque explanations for this word's origin, but the truth is likely quite simple: it comes from the French word for "grip."

What are you obligated to put into and leave out of a memoir? What kind of consequences should you expect if you're completely honest about others in your life? Well-known writers, including Pat Conroy, Cheryl Strayed, Sue Monk Kidd, Anne Lamott, and Edwidge Danticat consider such questions in Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature.

The behavior of electricity has long been likened to that of liquid: it flows in a current, and can be turned on and off in a closed system. So it's not surprising that we talk of getting juice for a phone's a battery by plugging it into a charging station.

A silly joke about a parrot made the rounds of 19th-century American newspaper, and may be the source for our expression cry uncle, meaning "to give up."

Helicopter parents are so named because of their tendency to hover over their children's lives. A Kentucky listener who made an initial college visit with her son reports two variations that she learned from staffers:  Lawnmower parents, who mow down every obstacle in their way, and Black Hawk parents -- helicopter parents so aggressive they'll show up at the office of top college administrators ready to do verbal battle.

A Marietta, Georgia, listener says her high school English teacher challenged her to find words that start with un- or in- that mean the same thing with or without the prefix. The list includes ravel and unravel, flammable and inflammable, loosen and unloosen, and valuable and invaluable.

When it comes to the act of writing, E.L. Doctorow once said, it's "like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Hector's Pup (Rebroadcast) - 6 June 2016


Mon, Jun 06, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words": Sharing a secret language. Did you ever speak in gibberish with a childhood pal, adding extra syllables to words so the adults couldn't understand what you were saying? Such wordplay isn't just for kids--and it's not just limited to English. Also, memory tricks to hold onto those slippery words you always forget. And, what do you call your warm, knitted cap? Is it a beanie, a tuque, a toboggan, or something else? The answer has everything to do with where you live. Plus cutting a rusty, foundering on cake, hone in vs. home in, Jeezum Crow!, and triboluminescence.

FULL DETAILS

We heard from someone on the show a while back about what to call an ex-wife's new husband. Lots of listeners called in and wrote us with their suggestions, including husband-in-law and step-husband to relief pitcher, stunt double, and version 2.0.

If you've spent any time in the Vermont region, chances are you've heard the exclamation Jeezum Crow!, which is simply a euphemism for "Jesus Christ!"

Martha went on an overnight backpacking trip and came back with a new word: triboluminescence, which refers to the glow created by rubbing together two pieces of quartz. The tribo- is from a Greek root meaning "to rub," the source also of diatribe, which has to do with "wearing away" using words.

The verb to founder applies to horses that overeat to a dangerous extent. It's used by extension in less severe situations involving humans, such as children at a birthday party foundering on cake and ice cream.

Grant came across a lovely discussion on Metafilter about ways to denote farting. His two favorites: making a little wish, and love puff, used at that point in a relationship where you feel okay passing gas in front of your significant other.

Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski, who belongs to the National Puzzlers' League, brought us a game inspired by the league’s newsletter. In this game, based on head-to-tail shifts, the first letter of a word moves to the back to form a new word, so if a boyfriend presented his girlfriend with a _______, she'd display a triumphant ________.

A listener in Greenville, Tennessee, wonders about how the word meta went from prefix to adjective. Meta is simply a word used to describe something that's about itself.

After we heard from a listener about the phenomenon of swiping our hands together after finishing a chore—which she calls all-done clappy hands—several others reached out to say that in Great Britain, they use the phrase done and dusted.

When getting closer to an objective, do you hone in, home in, zone in, or zero in? The phrase zero in goes back to World War II and the act of fixing on a target. Home in carries a sense of traveling to or being aimed at something,  but people often say hone in because it sounds correct—akin to sharpening a blade until it's just right.

Ineluctable, meaning inescapable, is one of those words Martha has to look up in the dictionary every time she sees it. But noting its Latin origin, luctari, meaning "to struggle," and therefore related to reluctant, will help.

Hector's pup, or since Hector was a pup, is another way to say, Oh, heck. The expressions go back to the early 1900's, when people were perhaps more familiar with the character of Hector from The Iliad.

Why tell someone they're sexy when you can let them know they're good as corn? That's what the Portuguese say, along with taking his little horse away from the rain, an idiom that means giving up.

Gibberish and its variants aren't just for goofy teens in the wayback of the station wagon. As Jessica Weiss notes in Schwa Fire, the online magazine about language, people all over the world speak various forms of it. Her article features sound clips of some examples.

Tuque, a primarily Canadian name for a warm knit hat, is related to the French word toque, the tall white hat that chefs wear. Take our Great Knitted Hat Survey and tell us what you call them.

In German, ein Korb geben--literally, to "give a basket"--means to "turn down a potential date." This idiom derives from a medieval legend about castle-dwelling woman. Instead of letting her hair down for a suitor she didn't fancy, she let down a large basket. He got in, and she pulled it only halfway up, leaving him there to be humiliated in front of the townsfolk.

Aught, meaning "zero," is one of those odd terms where the original version—naught—was heard as two words, so people started saying an aught. This same process, known as metanalysis, misdivision, and a few other names, happened with napron and nadder, which eventually became apron and adder.

I feel you fam, or I feel u fam, is a term that's been popping up on social media sites like Vine and YikYak to tell someone you relate to what they’re saying or dealing with, even though you're not actually family.

Cutting a rusty, used particularly in the U.S. South and South Midlands, refers to doing something mildly outrageous like shouting a naughty word or pulling a prank. It's likely related to the word restive, as in restive sleep, wherein someone's tossing and turning, and an old sense of rusty applied to horses to mean "hard to control or stubborn."

In Northern Ireland, a clever way to say that someone has an overinflated sense of his own importance is to say he's no goat's toe.

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Gangbusters - 30 May 2016


Mon, May 30, 2016


Sensuous words and terms of endearment. Think of a beautiful word. Now, is it simply the word's sound that makes it beautiful? Or does its appeal also depend on meaning? Also, pet names for lovers around the world: You might call your beloved "honey," or "babe," or "boo." But in Swedish, your loved one is a "sweet nose," and in Persian, you can just say you hope a mouse eats them. Finally, in certain parts of the U.S., going out to see a stripper may not mean what you think it means. Plus, clutch, dank, girled up, gorilla warfare, dead ringer, spitten image, butter beans vs. lima beans, and the whole shebang.

FULL DETAILS

May a mouse eat you, or in Persian, moosh bokharadet, is a term of endearment suggesting the recipient is small and cute. Another picturesque hypocorism: French mon petit chou, "sweetheart," but literally, "my little cabbage."

To go gangbusters is to "perform well and vigorously" or "act with energy and speed," as in an economy going gangbusters. The term recalls the swift aggression of 1930's police forces decisively breaking up criminal gangs. The old-time radio show Gangbusters, known for its noisy opening sequence, complete with sirens and the rattle of tommy guns, helped popularize the term.

Sotnos, with an umlaut over that first o, is a Swedish term of endearment. Literally, it means "sweet nose."

A listener in Billings, Montana, wonders about two of her boyfriend's favorite slang terms: clutch and dank. Clutch most likely derives from the world of sports, where a clutch play requires peak performance from an athlete, giving rise to clutch meaning "great." Dank, on the other hand, is used among cannabis aficionados to describe the smell of good marijuana, and was popularized by Manny the Hippie's appearances on David Letterman's show.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski is on the hunt for four-letter words hidden inside related words. For example, find the related four letter word hidden in the last word of this sentence: A union member might find him despicable.  

When writing a business letter, what's a modern salutation that doesn't sound as stuffy as Dear Sir or Dear Madam? To Whom It May Concern, perhaps? The answer depends on the context and the intended audience.

A Boardman, Ohio, was confused as a child after reading about guerrilla warfare and wondering what those big, hairy primates could possibly be fighting about.

In mining country, a stripper is an huge piece of machinery churns up the soil in search of coal veins. This caused no end of hilarity one Christmas Day for a Terre Haute, Indiana, family when a new in-law was scandalized by the thought that all the menfolk were enthusiastically heading out to see a new stripper.

More than a century ago, the Springfield Republican newspaper in Massachusetts proposed a new word for that twitterpated time in an adolescent's life when one discovers the joys of flirtation: being all girled up. The Republican is also the publication containing the first known instance of someone suggesting the term Ms. as an honorific.

Schadenfreude, from German for "damage-joy," means "delight in the misfortune of others."

How dry is it? In the middle of a drought, you might answer that question is So dry the trees are bribing the dogs.

What makes a word beautiful? Is it merely how it sounds? Or does a word's meaning affect its aesthetic effect? Max Beerbohm had some helpful thoughts about gondola, scrofula, and other words in his essay "The Naming of Streets." Several years ago, Grant wrote a column on this topic for The New York Times.

The origin of the whole shebang, meaning "the whole thing," is somewhat mysterious. It may derive from an Irish word, shabeen, which meant "a disreputable drinking establishment," then expanded to denote other kinds of structures, including "an encampment." The phrase the whole shebang was popularized during the U.S. Civil War.
 
Two familiar terms that have inspired lots of bogus etymologies are dead ringer and spitting image. Dead ringer probably comes from horse racing, where a ringer is a horse that may look like other horses in a race but is actually from a higher class of competitors, and therefore a sure bet. The dead in this sense suggests the idea of "exact" or "without a doubt," also found in such phrases as dead certain. As for the term variously spelled spitting image or spittin' image or spit and image, Yale University linguist Larry Horn has argued convincingly that the original form is actually spitten image, likening a father-son resemblance to an exact copy spat out from the original.

If you want to reassure someone, you might say I've got your back. In Persian, however, to indicate the same thing, you'd say the equivalent of "I have your air," which is havato daram.

What's the difference between butter beans, lima beans, and wax beans? The answer depends on where you live and what dialect you speak.

Oh, those romantic Germans! Among their many terms of endearment is the one that translates as "mouse bear."

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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XYZ PDQ - 23 May 2016


Wed, May 18, 2016


How often do you hear the words campaign and political in the same breath? Oddly enough, 19th-century grammarians railed against using campaign to mean "an electoral contest." Martha and Grant discuss why. And, lost in translation: a daughter accidentally insults her Spanish-speaking mother with the English phrase You can't teach an old dog new tricks. Finally, just how many are a couple? Does a couple always mean just two? Or does "Hand me a couple of napkins" ever really mean "Give me a few"?

FULL DETAILS

Today's pet peeve is often tomorrow's standard usage. Nineteenth-century grammarians railed against the use of the word campaign to denote an electoral contest, arguing it was an inappropriate use of a military term. C.W. Bardeen's 1883 volume Verbal Pitfalls: A Manual of 1500 Words Commonly Misused is a trove of similarly silly and often unintentionally hilarious advice.

The slang phrase XYZ, meaning "examine your zipper," has been used since at least the 1960's as a subtle tipoff to let someone know his zipper is down. A variant, XYZ PDQ, means "examine your zipper pretty darn quick." Other surreptitious suggestions for someone with an open fly: There's a dime on the counter, Are you advertising?, and What do birds do?

A listener in Palmer, Massachusetts, wants a term for when something, such as a piece of art, evokes fondness by combining both old and new things, such as a Monet painting reimagined by a digital artist. How about a combination of the Italian words for "new" and "old," nuovovecchio? Or newstalgia, perhaps? Retrostalgia?

A bollard is a post that helps guide traffic. It probably derives from the Middle English word bole, meaning "tree trunk."

You'uns, a dialectal form of the second-person plural, generally means "you and your kin." The term is heard in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and much of the South, reflecting migration patterns of immigrants from the British Isles. It's also related to yinz, heard in western Pennsylvania to mean the same thing.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski serves up a sibilant quiz about three-word phrases that have words beginning with S separated by the word and. For example, what 1970's sitcom featured a theme song by Quincy Jones called "The Street Beater"?

Go lemony at is slang for "get angry."

Does the term a couple mean "two and only two items"? Nope. Plenty of folks use couple to mean "a small but indefinite" quantity, and to insist otherwise is pure peevishness.

A colloquial apology for telling an overly long story is Sorry I had to go around my elbow to get to my thumb. The phrase is also a handy way to indicate you took the opposite of a shortcut.

A woman whose mother is a native Spanish speaker learning English was bothered when her daughter used the phrase You can't teach an old dog new tricks, taking offense at the idea that her daughter was calling her a dog. She might instead have used A leopard can't change its spots, or As the twig is bent, so inclines the tree, and from Latin, Senex psittacus negligit ferulam, or An old parrot doesn't mind the stick.

The words plethora and drastic both have roots in ancient Greek. Both were first used in English as medical terms, plethora indicating "an excess of bodily fluid" and drastic meaning "having an effect."

In his 1869 volume Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech, self-appointed grammar maven gave specious advice against using the word love when you merely mean "like."

A San Diego, California, listener bemoans the lack of a specific term for the person who is married to one's brother or sister. The best we can do in English is brother-in-law or sister-in-law, but often that needs further clarification.

The slang expression No Tea, No Shade, meaning "No disrespect, but …" is common in the drag community, where T means "truth." The related phrase All Tea, All Shade, means "This statement is true, so I don't care if it offends you or not." At least as early as the 1920's the slang verb to shade has meant "to defeat."

Martha's fond of videos about Appalachian dialect, and in one she came across the expression, I'd just as soon be in hell with my back broke, meaning "I strongly prefer to be anywhere else."

English speakers borrowed the German term Witzelsucht (or "joke addiction") to mean "excessive punning and a compulsion to tell bad jokes." While it might sound amusing to have a word for such behavior, the word refers specifically to a brain malfunction that's actually quite serious.

In Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, Dan Lyons writes about slang he heard during his time working at a hot new startup. If someone was fired, that person was described as having graduated, and the word delight and the neologism delightion were used as terms for what the company aimed to provide to customers.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Hang a Ralph - 16 May 2016


Mon, May 16, 2016


The names of professional sports teams often have surprising histories -- like the baseball team name inspired by, of all things, trolley-car accidents. Plus, some questions to debate at your next barbecue: Is a hot dog a sandwich if it's in a bun? And when exactly does dusk or dawn begin? Dictionary editors wrestle with such questions all the time, and it turns out that writing a definition is a lot harder than you think. Finally, a new word for your John Hancock: When you use your finger to sign an iPad, what do you call that electronic scribble? Plus, hang a Roscoe, Peck's Bad Boy, coming down the pike, sozzling, stroppy, grammagrams, and umbers.

FULL DETAILS

Try this riddle: You throw away the outside and cook the inside, then eat the outside and throw away the inside. What is it?
 
A caller from Los Angeles, California, wonders why we say hang a Roscoe for "turn right" when giving directions. This phrase, as well as hang a Louie, meaning "turn left," go back at least as far as the 1960's. These expressions are much like the military practice of using proper names for directional phrases in order to maintain clarity. Some people substitute the word bang for  hang, as in bang a Uey (or U-ee) for "make a U-turn."

The phrase coming down the pike refers to something approaching or otherwise in the works. The original idea had to do with literally coming down a turnpike.

In the late 19th century, Wisconsin newspaperman George Wilbur Peck wrote a series of columns about a fictional boy who was the personification of mischief. The popular character inspired stage and movie adaptations, and the term Peck's Bad Boy came to refer to someone similarly incorrigible.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski tees up a trivia quiz about how sports teams got their names. For example, are the Cleveland Browns so named because one of their founders was named Paul Brown, or because of the orange-brown clay on the banks of the Cuyahoga River?

A listener in Bayfield, Wisconsin, says her grandmother used to tell her to go sozzle in the bathtub. John Russell Bartlett's 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms defines the verb to sozzle this way: "to loll; to lounge; to go lazily or sluttishly about the house."

A professional shoemaker in Columbiana, Ohio, wonders why the words cobbler and cobble have negative connotations, given that shoemaking is a highly skilled trade. The notion of cobbling something together in a haphazard or half-hearted way goes back to the days when a cobbler's task was more focused on mending shoes, rather than making them. But Grant quotes a passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in which such a tradesman articulates the nobility of his profession: I am, indeed, sir, a surgeon to old shoes; when they are in great danger, I recover them. As proper men as ever trod upon neat's leather have gone upon my handiwork.

The slang term stroppy is an adjective meaning "annoying" or "difficult to deal with." It might be related to the similarly unpleasant word, obstreperous.

If you simply read each letter aloud, you can see why O.U.Q.T.! U.R.A.B.U.T.! can be interpreted to mean "Oh, you cutie! You are a beauty!" A statement expressed that way with letters, numerals, or drawings is called a rebus, or, if it's solely expressed with letters and numerals, a grammagram. Great examples include the F.U.N.E.X.? ("Have you any eggs?") gag by the British comedy duo The Two Ronnies, and William Steig's book CDC?

A door divided across the middle so that the bottom half stays closed while the top half opens is known as a Dutch door, a stable door, or a half-door. Some people informally call it a Mr. Ed door, named after a TV series popular in the 1960's about a talking horse named Mr. Ed who frequently stood behind such a door.

Is a hot dog a sandwich if it's in a bun? Why or why not? Is a burrito a sandwich? (A Massachusetts judge actually ruled on that question in 2006.) What about a veggie wrap? These kinds of questions about the limits and core meanings of various words are more complicated that you might think. Lexicographers try to tease out the answers when writing dictionary entries.

Some people are using the word fingature to mean that scribble you do on an electronic pad when asked to sign for a credit card payment.

A woman who grew up in Albuquerque recalls that when one of her schoolmates got in trouble, she and their peers would say ominously, Umbers! This slang term is apparently a hyperlocal version of similarly elongated exclamations like Maaaaaan! Or Burrrrrn! that youngsters use to call attention to another's faux pas.

An Indianapolis, Indiana, listener says that his mother-in-law was asked by a child where she was going, would jokingly sing that she was going to the Turkey trot trot trot, across the lot, lot, lot, feeling fine, fine, fine until Thanksgiving time. Trouble. Trouble trouble. Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble on the double. Sounds like she was singing a version of the Turkey Trot Blues.
 
This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

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You Bet Your Boots - 9 May 2016


Mon, May 09, 2016


You may have heard the advice that to build your vocabulary you should read, read, and then read some more--and make sure to include a wide variety of publications. But what if you just don't have that kind of time? Martha and Grant show how to learn new words by making the most of the time you do have. Also, when new words are added to a dictionary, do others get removed to make room? Plus, words of encouragement, words of exasperation, and a polite Japanese way to say goodbye when a co-worker leaves at the end of the day. Also, you bet your boots, the worm has turned, raise hell and put a chunk under it, bread and butter, on tomorrow, a love letter to libraries and an apology to marmots.


FULL DETAILS

After inadvertently maligning marmots in an earlier discussion of the term whistle pig, Martha makes a formal apology to any marmots that might be listening.

Uff-da! is an exclamation of disgust or annoyance. In Norwegian, it means roughly the same as  Yiddish Oy vey!, and is now common in areas of the U.S. settled by Norwegians, particularly Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The worm has turned suggests a reversal of fortune, particularly the kind of situation in which a meek person begins behaving more confidently or starts defending himself. In other words, even the lowliest of creatures will still strike back if sufficiently provoked, an idea Shakespeare used in Henry VI, Part 3, where Lord Clifford observes, "The smallest worm will turn being trodden on, and doves will peck in safeguard of their brood."

Raise hell and put a chunk under it is simply an intensified version of the phrase raise hell, meaning "to cause trouble" or "create a noisy disturbance."

The phrases You bet your boots! and You bet your britches! mean "without a doubt" and most likely originate from gambling culture, where you wouldn't want to bet your boots or trousers without being confident that you'd win.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski takes us on a road trip, which means another round of the License Plate Game!

A Chicago-area listener wonders: When dictionaries go from print to online, are any words removed? What's the best print dictionary to replace the old one on her dictionary stand? For more about dictionaries and their history, Grant recommends the Cordell Collection of Dictionaries at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana.

When two people are walking side-by-side holding hands but briefly separate to go around an obstacle on opposite sites, they might say bread and butter. This phrase apparently stems from an old superstition that if the two people want to remain inseparable as bread and butter, they should invoke that kind of togetherness. There are several variations of this practice, including the worry that if they fail to utter the phrase, they'll soon quarrel. Another version appears early in an episode of the old TV series The Twilight Zone, featuring a very young William Shatner.  

John Webster's 1623 tragedy The Duchess of Malfi includes the memorable lines
Glories, like glowworms, afar off shine bright, / But looked to near have neither heat nor light. Much later, Stephen Crane expressed a similar idea in his poem A Man Saw a Ball of Gold in the Sky.

A woman in Monticello, Florida, is bothered by the phrase on tomorrow, and feels that the word on is redundant. However, this construction is a dialect feature, not a grammatical mistake. It has roots in the United Kingdom and probably derives from the phrase on the morrow.

What phrases do you use to encourage others to pick themselves up and dust themselves off? move on? What words do you say to acknowledge someone's bad luck and encourage them to move on? In a discussion on our Facebook group, listeners offer lots of suggestions, including tough beans, tough darts, suck it up, tough nougies, and you knew it was a snake when you picked it up.

A listener in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, requests advice about expanding her vocabulary as a writer, but admits she spends only about ten minutes a day reading. The hosts offer several suggestions: Make sure to stop and look up unfamiliar words; listen to podcasts, which will also introduce you to new words; check the etymology, which is sometimes a helpful memory aid; build vocabulary practice into your routine with a word-a-day calendar or a subscription to Anu Garg's A.Word.A.Day newsletter.

A teacher in Oakley, Vermont, noted a curious construction among his students while teaching in Maine. They would say things like We're all going to the party, and so isn't he orI like to play basketball, and so doesn't he.  Primarily heard in eastern New England, this locution has a kind of internal logic, explained in more detail at one of our favorite resources, The Yale Grammatical Diversity Project.

A Jackson, Mississippi, woman who used to work in Japan says that each day as she left the office, her colleagues would say Otsukaresama desu, which means something along the lines of "Thank you for your hard work." Although its literal translation suggests that the hearer must be exhausted, it's simply understood as a polite, set phrase with no exact equivalent in English.

Pulitzer-winning historian Barbara Tuchman has observed that her single most formative educational experience was  exploring Harvard's Widener Library. She captured the feelings of many library lovers when she added that her own daughter couldn't enter that building "without feeling that she ought to carry a compass, a sandwich, and a whistle."

To go at something bald-headed means "to rush at something head-on." The same idea informs the phrase to I'm going to pinch you bald-headed, which an exasperated parent might say to a misbehaving child. The more common version is snatch you bald-headed, a version of which Mark Twain used in his Letters from Hawaii.  
 
This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Eat The Grindstone (Rebroadcast) - 2 May 2016


Mon, May 02, 2016


The books we love as children may influence our careers more than we realize. As a child, Martha was fascinated with stories of cracking codes, and Grant loved books with glossaries--not that far from the kind of work they do today. A caller named Nancy credits her long career in medicine to a children's book called Nurse Nancy. Also, ever traveled to England and ended up incorporating British phrases into your own vocabulary? You're feeling "the chameleon effect." And you know when you return to your car and take a moment before leaving to check your phone messages? What do you call that? Plus, a Dial-a-Joke word quiz, baffie slippers, bacon collar, the power of rhyme, and Shakespeare's First Folio goes on tour.

FULL DETAILS

Would you rather write in a language with no punctuation or without the use of similes or metaphors? Grant and Martha agree that texting has proven our ability to get a point across without periods or commas. On the other hand, sometimes an idea just needs to be expressed with a metaphor.

An American who worked as an au pair in Italy found that children there didn't seem to react so positively to fun sayings like, "No way, Jose" or "Ready, Freddie?" Yet some research suggests we're primed to love rhyme.

Office workers in Richmond, Virginia, are having a dispute: Is the appliance that makes the coffee a coffee pot or a coffee maker? This is a classic case of synecdoche, where a single part—like the pot that holds the hot coffee—is used to refer to the whole object.

When you forget to put those plastic stays in your collar before you wash a dress shirt, the curled-up result is what some folks call bacon collar.

In honor of the old Dial-a-Joke phone line, Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game called Blank-a-Blank, with clues to different terms that have the letter a sandwiched between two dashes.

If someone has biffed it, they've fallen down and embarrassed themselves.

Cat face is a cute way to describe something like a piece of fruit or a tree that's grown in on itself, giving it a puckered kind of indentation. Particularly in the African-American community, it's used to denote a wrinkle to be ironed out.

The saying I don't chew my cabbage twice, means I'm not going to repeat myself. The ancient Romans, by the way, ate cabbage as a protection against hangovers, but detested the smell of twice-cooked cabbage.

There's an old Texan proverb that goes Lick by lick, the cow ate the grindstone. In other words, if you're dogged enough, anything is possible.

Even though blogs can't read and newspapers can't speak, it's totally appropriate to write the blog reads, or the newspaper says.

We spoke on a recent show about the joking consolation parents offer to a crying child, It'll be better before you’re married. A podcast listener in Siberia emailed to say that in Russian, a similar saying translates to, "It has enough time to heal before you're married." This also shows up in a translation of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.

A listener named Kio from Los Angeles says she spent some time in England, and while her colleagues there claimed that her valley girl slang was rubbing off on them, she herself picked up plenty of English slang. This is a classic linguistic phenomenon called the Chameleon Effect, whereby people adopt the language and customs of those around themselves in order to feel like part of a group.

What do you call that moment when you get back in the car and before you drive off, you check back in with your phone to see what you missed in the world of email, texting and cyber communication? How about le petite voyage?

Baffies—not bathies—is a Scottish term for the slippers you might wear in the morning to and from the shower, cooking breakfast, or doing just about anything during the transition from barefootedness to having real shoes on.

We got a call from a nurse named Nancy who, what do you know, grew up reading a book called Nurse Nancy. Is there a book you read as a child that influenced your career choices?

In observance of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, copies of his First Folio will be touring all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico, for the public to see. It seems fitting, considering what D.H. Lawrence wrote about the Bard: "When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder that such trivial people should muse and thunder in such lovely language."

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Pickle Seeder (Rebroadcast) - 25 April 2016


Mon, Apr 25, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words": Constructing imaginary languages and deconstructing the lingo of Hollywood. For example, would you rather live in a world with no adjectives . . . or no verbs--and why? Also, who in the world is that terrible director Alan Smithee [SMITH-ee] who made several decades' worth of crummy films? Actually, if a movie director has his work wrested away from him and doesn't like the final product, he may insist on a pseudonym, and Alan gets a lot of the blame. Also, backpackers and medical personnel must pay close attention to "insensible losses" -- although they may not be what you think. Plus, cuttin' a head shine, insensible losses, fulsome, apoptosis, and a whole slew of ways to refer to that nasty brown ice pack that's been jammed around some of your car wheels all winter.

FULL DETAILS

Let's play a round of linguistic Would You Rather: Would you prefer that everyone talk in language that uses only verbs or only adjectives? Grant and Martha both had the same preference. See if you agree.

An East Tennessee caller wonders the phrase cutting a head shine, meaning "pull off a caper" or "behave in a boisterous, comical manner." Cutting a head shine derives from an alternate use of shine, meaning "trick," and head, a term used in Appalachia meaning "most remarkable, striking, or entertaining." A similar phrase, cutting a dido, is used not only in the South and South Midlands, but through much of New England as well.

We recently spoke about the phrase I've slept since then, for "I don't remember." A Texas listener wrote to say that where she lives, the phrase is I've blinked since then.

A caller in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, says that when his grandfather was asked how he was doing, he'd reply, Running like a pickle seeder, meaning "doing really well." The joke, of course, is that there's no such thing as a pickle seeder. After all, what would be the point of taking seeds out of pickles?

On our Facebook group someone asked, "Does anyone else get frustrated by the second p in apoptosis?" Now you know there's a second p in apoptosis, which of course you already knew is also known as programmed cell death.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski invites us to a party where all the adults have professions that match their children's names. For example, if dad is a barber, or if mom is a recording engineer, what would they name their boys?

Ever seen a great film by the director Alan Smithee? Chances are the answer is no, since Alan Smithee is a pseudonym going back to 1968 that's used by directors who've had their work wrestled from them and no longer want visible credit for the (often embarrassing) final product. An actress from Los Angeles shares this term, plus the backstory of The Eastwood Rule, which has to do with the time Clint Eastwood had a director fired only to then take over as the director himself. After that happened in 1967, the Directors Guild has disallowed it from happening again.

The word fulsome has undergone some real semantic changes over the years. It used to mean "excessive, overly full" in a negative way, but it's come to have positive connotations for some, who think it means "copious" or "abundant." It's a word that requires careful use--if you use it all--because without proper context it can be confusing.

Insensible losses, in the world of medicine, are things your body loses which you simply don't sense. A prime example is the water vapor you see coming out of your body when you exhale in cold weather, but aren't aware of when it's warmer out.

The very conversational phrase yeah, no, is a common way people signify that they agree with only part of a statement. It's like saying, I hear you, but ultimately I disagree.

The saying, I ain't lost nothin' over there is a dismissive way to say Why in the world would I bother going to that place? A similar version you ain't lost nothin' down there, appears in the play Trouble in Mind, by Alice Childress, the first African-American woman to have a play professionally produced in New York City, and first woman to win an Obie for Best Play.

A recent call from a video editor looking for a fancy word to refer to extracting video from a computer drew a huge response from listeners trying to help. The suggestions they offered include cull, evict, expunge, expede, disassemble, de-vid, and (in case they were working on Windows operating systems) defenestrate.

A married couple has invented a lovely word to mean "I sympathize" that doesn't sound quite so stilted. They simply say, salma. It's an example of the private language couples develop.

What do you call the dirty frozen solid pack of brown snow that gets jammed in the wheel of a car in certain parts of the world this time of year? Try crud, car crud, fenderbergs, carnacles, snow goblins, tire turds, or chunkers.

In the same vein as Billy Badass and Ricky Rescue, most people have dealt with a Mickey Morenyou. He's that guy who walks onto your turf and still seems to believe he knows more than you.

The mealtime admonition Someone has to finish this up so the sun shines tomorrow, comes from a German saying that goes back at least 150 years.

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Green Eyed Monster (Rebroadcast) - 18 April 2016


Mon, Apr 18, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words": We often hear that English is going to hell in a handbasket. Actually, though, linguistic handwringing about sinking standards and sloppy speech has been going on for centuries--at least as far back as the 1300's! And: language also changes to fit the needs the workplace. Take, for example, the slang of flight attendants. Listen on your next trip, and you might overhear them talking about landing lips, flying dirty, or crew juice. Plus, a discreet phrase from Arabic for advising someone that he has food in his beard. All this, plus a word game based on Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," dead as a doornail, the green-eyed monster, and learning that fat meat is greasy.


FULL DETAILS

It turns out the creativity of flight attendants doesn't stop with the pre-takeoff safety demonstration; they have slang for all kinds of fun stuff, from the lipstick they apply before passengers deplane (landing lips) to the 2-for-1 special, which is when the plane hits the runway upon landing, then bounces up and lands again.  

Dead as a doornail is a common idiom, but what exactly is a doornail, and why is it dead? The saying goes at least as far back as the 1350's, and may simply refer to the fact that the nails used to make big, heavy doors were securely fixed in place--the modifier dead having the same sort of unequivocal sense suggested in the expression dead certain.

What do flight attendants call that point in takeoff preparations when they walk up and down the aisle to make sure seatbelts are securely fastened? It's the crotch watch, also known as a groin scan. The expression flying dirty refers to when the plane is traveling with all its slats, flaps and wheels hanging down.

The term green-eyed monster, meaning jealousy, first appears in Shakespeare's Othello, when Iago says, "Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!/ It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on."

A stepmother slice, according to a 1915 citation in the Dictionary of American Regional English, is a slice of bread that's too thick to bite.  

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game built on the lyrical pattern of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" with clues like, Mr. Tyson, even a boxer like you shouldn't have a problem finding a 3-wheeled ride out of here.

There's a gazelle on the lawn, meaning you have schmutz on your face, is a fun way to tip someone off to wipe their chin. The expression actually comes to us from Arabic, where the expression there's a gazelle in the garden means that you have something in your beard.

Flying on the backside of the clock, in airline lingo, refers to traveling when most of the people where you live are asleep.

Frequent the adjective and frequent the verb can be pronounced differently, with the verb getting an emphasis on the second syllable. Wikipedia has a great list of these heteronyms, where two words are spelled the same but pronounced differently.

If you live in a city in India, you probably have at least some facility in at least two languages. As Salman Rushdie once observed: "If you listen to the urban speech patterns there you'll find it's quite characteristic that a sentence will begin in one language, go through a second language and end in a third. It's the very playful, very natural result of juggling languages. You are always reaching for the most appropriate phrase."

What's the best term for an ex-wife's new husband? A caller in Chico, California, is friendly with both his ex-wife and her new love, and wonders if there's a more civil term than floozy. Other options: the second shift, and Tupperware, since that person's getting your leftovers. Have a better term for the new spouse of your ex?

The writer Richard Trench has a lovely quote that echoes Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous lines about language as fossil poetry: "Language is the amber in which a thousand precious thoughts have been safely embedded and preserved."

It's commonly heard these days that English is going to hell in a handbasket, but it’s worth remembering that we've always said things like this. A hundred years ago, as telephones became more and more common, sticklers railed against the popular shortening of telephone to simply phone. The moral here is that language is always changing, and in hindsight, not necessarily for the worst.

Learning that fat meat is greasy, which means learning something the hard way, is a common idiom used almost exclusively in the African-American community, and refers to a juicy cut of the pig called fatmeat. Linguist Geneva Smitherman has a great entry for the saying in her book Word from the Mother: Language and African Americans.

In airline slang, a leanover is an abbreviated version of a layover, or one in which there's not enough time to actually lie down.

The term so long, meaning "goodbye," does not come from the Arabic word salaam. Its origin is German.

If you've ever had the experience of casting a dream film or TV episode in your head—say, putting Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller, both of whom play Sherlock Holmes on TV, in the same show together—that imaginary scenario comes from your headcanon.

Why is there an upstate New York but not an upstate New Jersey, or an Oklahoma panhandle but not a Missouri panhandle? Both geographic phenomena exist in those places, but the terminology varies.

A push present is a gift a father gives to a mother for giving birth.

I'll be John Brown's slew foot, a euphemism for "I'll be damned," makes reference to the abolitionist riot leader John Brown, who was said to be damned after he was hanged. Slew in this sense means "twisted."

Crew juice is what an airline crew drinks after a flight at the bar or on the way to the hotel.

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Pink Slip - 11 April 2016


Mon, Apr 11, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words": The language of political speech. Politicians have to repeat themselves so often that they naturally develop a repertoire of stock phrases to fall back on. But is there any special meaning to subtler locutions, such as beginning a sentence with the words "Now, look…"? Also, a peculiar twist in Southern speech may leave outsiders scratching their heads: In parts of the South "I wouldn't care to" actually means "I would indeed like to." Finally, how the word "nerd" went from a dismissive term to a badge of honor. Also, dog in the manger, crumb crushers, hairy panic, pink slips, make a branch, and horning hour.

FULL DETAILS

A listener in Weathersfield, Vermont, remembers going on car trips as a young child and wondering why, toward the end of the day, her parents would be on the lookout for motels with bacon seed.

Someone who is likened to a dog in the manger is acting spitefully, claiming something they don't even need or want in order to prevent others from having it. The story that inspired this phrase goes all the way back to ancient Greece.

A Denton, Texas, caller wonders: Are politicians increasingly starting sentences with the phrase Now, look . . . ?

A listener in Ellsworth, Michigan, shares a favorite simile from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.

Make a branch is a euphemism that means "to urinate," the word branch being a dialectal term for "a small stream."

Quiz Guy John Chaneski puts on his toque and serves up a quiz about kitchen spices.

A San Antonio, Texas, listener is puzzled about a story in The Guardian about Mavis Staples speculating about her romance with Bob Dylan: "If we’d had some little plum-crushers, how our lives would be. The kids would be singing now, and Bobby and I would be holding each other up." Plum-crushers? Chances are, though, that the reporter misheard a different slang term common in the African-American community.

Nerd used to be a term of derision, connoting someone who was socially awkward and obsessed with a narrow field of interest. Now it's used more admiringly for anyone who has a passion for a particular topic. Linguists call that type of softening amelioration.

A Toronto, Canada, caller wonders how a notice that an employee is being fired ever came to be known as a pink slip.

Martha reads Jessica Goodfellow's poem about the sound of water, "Chance of Precipitation," which first appeared in the Beloit Poetry Journal.

A man who moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, was puzzled when he offered one of his new neighbors a refill on her beverage. She said I wouldn't care to have any, which he understood to be a refusal. What she meant was that she did want another glass. Turns out in that part of the country I wouldn't care to can mean I would like to, the key word being care, as in "mind" or "be bothered."

If someone's really intelligent, they might be described with the simile as smart as a bee sting.

We're off like a dirty shirt indicates the speaker is "leaving right away" or "commencing immediately." Similar phrases include off like a prom dress and off like a bride's nightie. All of them suggest haste, urgency, and speed.

Hairy panic is a weed that's wreaking havoc in a small Australian town. The panic in its name has nothing to do with extreme anxiety or overpowering fear. Hairy panic, also known as panic grass, in the scientific genus Panicum, which comprises certain cereal-producing grasses, and derives from Latin panus, or "ear of millet."

A woman in Bozeman, Montana, wonders if any other families use the term horning hour as synonym for happy hour. The term's a bit of a mystery, although it may have something to do with horning as in a shivaree, charivari, or other noisy celebration in the Old West.

One way of saying someone's a tightwad or cheapskate is to say he has fishhooks in his pocket, meaning he's so reluctant to reach into his pocket for his wallet, it's as if he'd suffer bodily injury if he did. In Australia, a similar idea is expressed with the phrases he has scorpions in his pocket or he has mousetraps in his pocket. In Argentina, what's lurking in a penny-pincher's pocket is a crocodile.
 
This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Criss Cross Applesauce - 4 April 2016


Mon, Apr 04, 2016


How do languages change and grow? Does every language acquire new words in the same way? Martha and Grant focus on how that process happens in English and Spanish. Plus, the stories behind the Spanish word "gringo" and the old instruction to elementary school students to sit "Indian Style." Finally, the English equivalents of German sayings provide clever ways to think about naps, procrastination, lemons, and more. Also: catawampus, raunchy, awful vs. awesome, Man Friday, and no-see-ums.

FULL DETAILS

If you're looking forlorn and at a loss, a German speaker might describe you with a phrase that translates as "ordered but not picked up." It's as if you're a forgotten pizza sitting on a restaurant counter.

Sitting on the floor Indian style, with one's legs crossed, is a reference to Native Americans' habit of sitting that way, a practice recorded early in this country's history in the journals of French traders. Increasingly, though, schools across the United States are replacing this expression with the term criss-cross applesauce. In the United Kingdom, however, this way of sitting is more commonly known as Turkish style or tailor style.

A nine-year-old from Yuma, Arizona, wants to know the origin of catawampus. So do etymologists. Catawampus means "askew," "awry," or "crooked." We do know the word has been around for more than a century, and is spelled many different ways, such as cattywampus and caddywampus. It may derive from the Scots word wampish, meaning to "wriggle," "twist," or "swerve."


How sour is it? If you speak German, you might answer with a phrase that translates as "That's so sour it will pull the holes in your socks together."

A sixth-grade teacher in San Antonio, Texas, is skeptical about a story that the gringo derives from a song lyric. He's right. The most likely source of this word is the Spanish word for "Greek," griego, a term applied to foreigners much the same way that English speakers might say that an unintelligible language is Greek to me. The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, imitated the sound of foreigners with the word barbaroi, the source of our own word barbarian.

The board game Clue inspired this week's puzzle from our Quiz Guy John Chaneski. It also inspired him to create an online petition to give Mrs. White a doctor's degree.

What's the meaning of the word raunchy? A woman in Indianapolis, Indiana, thinks it means something naughty or ribald, but to her husband's family, the word can mean "icky" or otherwise "unpleasant." She learned this when one of them mentioned that her husband's grandfather was feeling raunchy. What they mean was that he had a bad cold. The word raunchy has undergone a transformation over the years, from merely "unkempt" or "sloppy" to "coarse" and "vulgar."

A German idiom for "I'm going to take a nap" translates as "I have to take a look at myself from the inside."

A native of Colombia wants to know: Do different languages add new words in similar ways? He believes that Spanish, for example, is far less open to innovation than English.

Awesome and awful may have the same root, but they've evolved opposite meanings. Awful goes back more than a thousand years, originally meaning "full of awe" and later, "causing dread." Awesome showed up later and fulfills a different semantic role, meaning "fantastic" or "wonderful."

More listeners weigh in on our earlier discussion about the word gypsy, and whether it's to be avoided.

A listener in Norwich, Connecticut, is going through a trove of love letters her parents sent each other during World War II. In one of them, her father repeatedly used the word hideous in an ironic way to mean "wonderful." Is that part of the slang of the time?

An astute German phrase about procrastination translates as "In the evening, lazy people get busy."

A young woman is puzzled when her boyfriend's father says he was looking for someone who needs a Good Boy Friday. It's most likely a reference to Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe. The title character spends 30 years on a remote tropical island, and eventually saves the life of an islander who becomes his helper. Crusoe decides to call him Friday, since that's the day of the week when they first encountered each other. Over time, English speakers began using the term Man Friday to mean a manservant or valet, and later the term Girl Friday came to mean an office assistant or secretary.   

The term no-see-ums refers to those pesky gnats that come out in the heat and humidity and are so tiny they're almost invisible. The term goes back at least as far as the 1830's, and is heard particularly in the Northeastern United States.
 
This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

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Whistle Pig - 28 March 2016


Mon, Mar 28, 2016


The stories behind slang, political and otherwise. The dated term "jingoism" denotes a kind of belligerent nationalism. But the word's roots lie in an old English drinking-house song that was popular during wartime. Speaking of fightin' words, the expression "out the side of your neck" came up in a feud between Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa--and let's just say the phrase is hardly complimentary.  Finally, a German publishing company has declared that the top slang term among that country's youth is a name for someone who's completely absorbed in his cell phone. That word is...Smombie! And if you're guessing that Smombie comes from "zombie," you're right. Plus, thaw vs. unthaw, dinner vs. supper, groundhog vs. whistle pig, riddles galore, speed bumps and sleeping policemen, pirooting around, and kick into touch.

FULL DETAILS

Riddle: This two-syllable word has five letters. If you remove letters from it one by one, its pronunciation is still the same.

A husband and wife have a heated dispute. The topic? Whether thaw and unthaw mean the same thing.

What English speakers call speed bumps or sleeping policemen go by different names in various parts of the Spanish-speaking world. In Argentina, traffic is slowed by lomos de burro, or "burro's backs." In Puerto Rico that bump in the road is a muerto, or "dead person." In Mexico, those things are called topes, a word that's probably onomatopoetic.

A St. Petersburg, Florida, listener says when she used to ask her mother what was for dinner, her mom's answer was often Root little pig or die, meaning "You'll have to fend for yourself." An older version, root hog or die, goes all the way back to the memoirs of Davy Crockett, published in 1834. It refers to a time when hogs weren't fenced in and had to find most of their own food.

The German publisher Langenscheidt declared Smombie as the Youth Word of the Year for 2015. A portmanteau of the German borrowings Smartphone and Zombie, Smombie denotes someone so absorbed in their small, glowing screen that they're oblivious to the rest of the world. Runner-up words included merkeln, "to do nothing" or "to decide nothing"--a reference to Chancellor Angela Merkel's deliberate decision-making style--and Maulpesto, or "halitosis"-- literally, "mouth pesto."

Puzzle Person John Chaneski proffers problems pertaining to the letter P. What alliterative term, for example, also means "wet blanket"?

A San Antonio, Texas, caller wonders: What's a good word for a shortcut that ends up taking much longer than the recommended route? You might call the opposite of a shortcut a longcut, or perhaps even a longpaste. But there's also the joking faux-Latinate term circumbendibus, first used in 17th-century England to mean "a roundabout process."

A listener from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, sent us this riddle: I begin at the end. I am constant but never the same. I am frequently captured but never possessed. What am I?

Jingoism, or "extreme nationalism," derives from a drinking-hall song popular in the 1870's, with the belligerent refrain: "We don't want to fight but by jingo if we do / We've got the ships, we've got the men, and got the money too / We've fought the Bear before and while we're Britons true / The Russians shall not have Constantinople." The term jingo came to denote "fervent patriot espousing an aggressive foreign policy."

In rugby and soccer to kick into touch means to "kick a ball out of play." The phrase by extension can mean to "take some kind of action so that a decision is postponed" or otherwise get rid of a problem.

The Twitter feud between Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa has a listener wondering about the phrase talk out the side of your neck, meaning to "talk trash about someone." It's simply a variation of talking out of the side of one's mouth.

When they happen to say the same word at the very same time, many children play a version of the Jinx! game that ends with the declaration, You owe me a Coke! Martha shares an old version from the Ozarks that ends with a different line: What goes up the chimney? Smoke!

Many listeners responded to our conversation about the use of the term auntie to refer to an older woman who is not a blood relative. It turns out that throughout much of Africa, Asia, as well as among Native Americans, the word auntie, or its equivalent in another language, is commonly used as a term of respect for an older woman who is close to one's family but not related by blood.

A Las Vegas, Nevada, listener says her South Dakota-born mother always refers to supper as the last meal of the day and dinner as the largest meal of the day. It's caused some confusion in the family. Linguist Bert Vaux has produced dialect maps of the United States showing that in fact quite a bit of variation in the meaning of these terms depending on which part of the country you're from.

How do you make the number one disappear? (You can do it if you add a letter.)

Whistle pig, woodchuck, and groundhog are all terms for a type of large squirrel, or marmot, found in the United States. The name whistle pig, common in Appalachia, is a jocular reference to the sound they make.

On our Facebook group, a listener posted a photo of a doubletake-worthy sign in her local grocery, which reads We Now Offer Boxes to Bag Your Groceries.

Pirooting around can means "whirling around," as well as "prowling" or "nosing around." This expression is most commonly heard in the American South and Southwest. Piroot is most likely a variant of pirouette and is probably influenced by root, as in root around. Similarly, rootle is a dialectal term that means to "root around" or "poke about."

What do you call that force that keeps you lounging on the couch rather than get up the energy to go outdoors? A listener calls it house gravity.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Idiom's Delight (Rebroadcast) - 21 March 2016


Mon, Mar 21, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words": What's in a name? A recent study found that some names crop up more frequently than others in certain professions. The name William is especially common among attorneys--and graphic designers include a higher-than-average number of Jessicas. Plus, picturesque idioms from around the world: What Russians mean when they say someone has "a burning hat," and what Swedes mean when they say someone "slid in on a shrimp sandwich." Speaking of food, where would you find a self-licking ice cream cone? A good place to look: Washington, D.C. Plus, bunking, Carter's got pills, the Philly slang word jawn, Irish tough love, do-ocracy, the pulmonic ingressive, and the etymology of tip.

FULL DETAILS

In English, we might say that someone born to a life of luxury was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. In Swedish, though, the image is different. Someone similarly spoiled is said to slide in on a shrimp sandwich. For more picturesque idioms from foreign languages, check out Suzanne Brock's beautifully illustrated Idiom's Delight.

Students in New England might refer to playing hooky from school as bunking, or bunking off. Jonathon Green's Dictionary of Slang traces the term back to the 1840s in the British Isles.

In Russian, someone with an uneasy conscience is described by an idiom that translates as The thief has a burning hat--perhaps because he's suffering discomfort that no one else perceives.

A Washington, D.C., caller says her dad would console her with the saying Don't worry, it will be better before you're married. Which is really less a heartfelt consolation than it is a better way to say, get over it. The saying comes from Ireland.

The terms self-licking ice cream cone, self-eating watermelon, and self-licking lollipop all refer to organizations, such as governmental bureaucracies, that appear to exist solely for the sake of perpetuating themselves.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game where the answer to each clue is a word or phrase includes the vowels a, e, i, o, and u exactly one time each. For example, what's a cute infant animal that's yet to get its spikes?

Like many English words, tip—as in, the gratuity you leave to the waiter or the bellhop—doesn't originate with an acronym such as To Insure Promptness. This type of tip goes back to the mid-18th century, when thieves would tip, or tap, someone in the process of acquiring or handing off stolen goods. That false etymology really a backronym, formed after the invention of the word.

If you keep postponing an important chore, you're said to be procrastinating. There's a more colorful idiom in Portuguese, however. It translates as to push something with your belly.

Anyhow and anyways, said at the end of a sentence, are common placeholders that many find annoying. Instead, you might try finishing a thought with What do you think? That way, the conversation naturally flows back to the other person.

In Thailand, advice to the lovelorn can include a phrase that translates as The land is not so small as a prune leaf. It's the same sentiment as There are lots of fish in the sea.

The saying, you've got more excuses than Carter’s got pills, or more money than Carter’s got pills, refers to the very successful product known as Carter's Little Liver Pills. They were heavily marketed beginning in the late 1880's, and as late as 1961 made for some amusing television commercials.

Pangrams, or statements that include every letter of the alphabet, are collected on Twitter at @PangramTweets, and include such colorful lines as, I always feel like the clerk at the liquor store is judging me when she has to get a moving box to pack all my booze up.

The folks at the baby-name app Nametrix crunched some data and found that certain names are disproportionately represented in different professions. The name Leonard, for example, happens to be particularly common among geologists, and Marthas are overrepresented among interior designers.

In northern Sweden, the word yes is widely communicated by a sound that's reminiscent of someone sucking through a straw. It's called the pulmonic ingressive. Linguist Robert Eklund calls this a neglected universal, meaning that it's only recently been recognized as a sound that's part of many languages around the world, even though it's been around for a while. In one study, Swedes talking on the phone used ingressive speech when they thought they were speaking with a human, but not when they thought they were conveying the same information to a computer.

The Thai have a wise saying about self-reliance that translates as You must go to the restroom, the restroom won't come to find you. True that.

An Indianapolis listener is curious about a saying his dad used to describe anything that's excellent or the best of its kind: Just like New York.

The Occupy movement helped to popularize the term do-ocracy, a system of management or government where the people who actually roll up their sleeves and do things get to decide how those things are done.

Jawn is a term common in Philadelphia and parts of New Jersey that refers to a thing, team, show, group, or pretty much any item. It's a variant of joint, as in, a Spike Lee joint.

A Latvian expression that translates as Did a bear stomp on your ear? is a more colorful, though no more kind, way to tell someone they have no ear for music. Also heard in Latvia is an idiom that translates as You're blowing little ducks, meaning, "You're talking nonsense."

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Blind Tiger (Rebroadcast) - 14 March 2016


Mon, Mar 14, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words": The best way to read poetry. When you pick up a book of poems, how many do you read in one sitting? Some people devour several in a row, while others savor them much more slowly. Plus, it's a problem faced by politicians and public speakers:  When you have to stand in front of people, what do you do with your hands? German Chancellor Angela Merkel came up with a solution. She positions her fingers in a special way that's become so closely associated with her, it now has its own name. And what does it mean if someone says you're "a real pipperoo"? Plus, orange grove vs. orange orchard, Pilish, ducksnorts and duckfarts, and the worst online passwords imaginable.

FULL DETAILS

On March 14, or 3/14, fans of both dessert and decimals come together to celebrate Pi Day. This year, though, it's not enough to call it at 3/14, because it's 3/14/15, and at 9:26 and 53 seconds, the first ten digits of pi will all be aligned. Speaking of aligning the digits, there's also a form of writing called pilish, where the sequential words in a passage each have an amount of letters that corresponds with the numbers in pi.

A swinging song by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra called "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" drops the line What a gal, a real pipperoo. A homeschooling family in Maine wonders just what a pipperoo is. For one, the suffix -eroo is a jokey ending sometimes added for comic effect, as with switcheroo and flopperoo. Pipperoo may derive from a particularly desirable type of apple called a pippin. And the jokey suffix -eroo is added for comic effect, as with switcheroo and flopperoo. So calling someone a pipperoo is fond way of saying, in effect, you’re a peach.

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan once observed that a poem should act like a clown suitcase, one you can open up and never quit emptying.

In East Tennessee, if someone invites you to a "fire," don’t be alarmed—there's a chance they're talking about a fair. A former Floridian who moved to that part of the country has been collecting some funny stories about local pronunciations.

Even foreign dignitaries can be plagued with the age-old problem of standing around in public: what do you do with your hands? German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken to holding her hands in a certain way so often that it's been named the Merkel-Raute, or Merkel rhombus, which pretty accurately describes the shape she's making.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game where you have to guess what three clues—like Bob, Tom, and Allie or bulb, silver, and month—have in common.

A ducksnort in softball or baseball will never make the highlight reel. It's often a blooper of a hit that lands between the infield and the far outfield, but still gets the job done. Paul Dickson, author of the authoritative Dickson Baseball Dictionary, explains the original version of the term: duckfart. White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson is credited with popularizing the more family-friendly version.

Are your Internet passwords bad enough to make the Worst Passwords List? An Internet security firm put out a list of bad ideas, and among them are things like baseball, football, car models, and your kid's name.

The Blind Tiger was a speakeasy during prohibition, perhaps so named because patrons would hand over money to peek at a fictitious blind animal, but also receive illegal booze as part of the bargain. The terms blind tiger and blind pig eventually came to describe a kind of liquor—one so powerful it could make you go blind, at least for a while. A Tallahassee, Florida, caller says one of his ancestors was gunned down by a gang called the Blind Tigers.

A Wisconsin listener says that when her body gets an involuntary, inexplicable shudder, she says A goose walked over my grave. An early version of the saying, There's somebody walking over my grave! appears in a 1738 book by Jonathan Swift, A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, in Three Dialogues. The phrase is generally used to describe an eerie premonition, though A goose walked over our grave may be used at that moment when a conversation falls silent.

Retcon, short for retroactive continuity, is the phenomenon commonly used in video games, comic books, and soap operas where something from a past plotline is changed in order for what’s happening in the present to make sense. Also along those lines is a ret canon, used to blow up a problem from the past.

Glyn Maxwell, in a recent review of the book Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare's Sonnets, argues that reading the sonnets altogether in a collection is a little strange, since many of them are worth more attention than they'll get if you read through them all quickly. Grant explains a similar problem he's had with poetry, but in going back to Langston Hughes' poems, he finds that trying not to focus on the rhyme or rhythm allows him to more fully understand the meaning of the words.

A Spotswood, Virginia, listener came across the phrase steppin' and fetchin' used in a positive way to describe a speedy race run by the great horse Secretariat. But the phrase has an ugly past. To step and fetch is how many people once described the job of a slave or handyman, and Stepin Fetchit was a famous actor who often played the stereotype of the lazy black man. The documentary Ethnic Notions covers some of the history of this racially charged imagery.

A new book called Ciao, Carpaccio!: An Infatuation, by veteran travel writer Jan Morris, celebrates the Venetian artist Carpaccio, who often used swaths of bright red in his paintings. His color choice is said to be the inspiration for beef or tuna carpaccio, slices of which are similarly deep red in the middle.

What's the difference between an orchard and a grove? People plant orchards with trees meant to bear fruit or nuts, whereas groves aren't necessarily planted. So an orange grove might be more accurately called an orange orchard. The problem is, orange orchard doesn't sound nearly as pleasant as orange grove.

Shrilk, a new substance made out of shrimp shells and silk, is gaining popularity as a substitute for plastic. We can still pretty much guarantee that, "One word: shrilk," will never be a classic movie line.

We all know that gesture people do, sometimes ironically, where you wipe or smack your hands together to signify that a job's done. There's no common term for it, but a Schenectady, New York, listener has a great suggestion: all-done clappy hands.

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

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Whistle Britches (Rebroadcast) - 7 March 2016


Mon, Mar 07, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words: Writers and where they do their best creative work.  A new book on Geoffrey Chaucer describes the dark, noisy, smelly room where he wrote his early work. Which raises the question: What kind of space DO you need to produce your best writing? Also, Texas football lingo, and the perfect smart-aleck remark for those times when you can't remember the answer to a question. Plus, how slang terms popular in African-American culture, like bling bling, bae, and on fleek find their way into the mainstream English. Also, salt and pepper cellars, itch a scratch vs. scratch an itch, sick abed on two chairs, a new word for nieces and nephews, the Jimmies and the Joes, aimless walks on Nantucket, and Dadisms.

FULL DETAILS

The father of one of Martha's friends had all sorts lots of funny sayings, like the one he'd use during a lull in a conversation: Do you live around here or do you ride a bicycle? He'd also respond to, "Are you ready to leave?" with I stay ready, so I don't have to get ready. We're betting that every family has these kinds of goofy, memorable lines. One name for them: Dadisims.

A Forth Worth, Texas, listener who interviewed candidates for a head football coach position at a high school reports that out of eight interviewees, six of them used the phrase, It's not about the X's and the O's, it's about the Jimmies and the Joes. It's a shorthand way of emphasizing the importance of valuing the players themselves, and first pops up in print in an LA Times story from 1991.

Scratching an itch is far more common than itching a scratch. Both are grammatically correct, but the latter is considered informal.

If someone asks you a question but you've forgotten the answer, you might respond with the phrase I've slept since then. The implication seems to be that it's been more than 24 hours since you either learned the information or needed to remember it, so you're excused. It's a phrase that gets handier the older we get.

Quiz Master John Chaneski has a game about secret identities involving words with the first letters IM.

The -cellar in saltcellar derives from an Old French word meaning "salt box," and is etymologically related to the word salt itself. A caller from India says she grew up with the expression salt-and-pepper cellar, and it turns out she's not the only one.

Words like bae, bling bling and on fleek have all moved into the common vernacular at different points in the last 30 years, thanks in part to the prominence of African-American slang in music and pop culture.

The Detroit Free Press reported recently that a man invented and trying to popularize a term for "nieces and nephews," although it's clear that the word sofralia has an uphill battle. English doesn't have a specific, fixed term for those relatives, although some people have tried to popularize the term nieflings.

Sick abed on two chairs is an idiom that can describe being sick but working anyway. It can also refer to the idea of being sick and going between two chairs: the dinner table chair, and the porcelain chair in the bathroom.

On Nantucket, a rantum scoot, or a random scoot, is a walk with no particular destination in mind.

The new book Chaucer's Tale by Paul Strohm describes the cramped, noisy, smelly place in which Chaucer wrote, which got us thinking about the particular environmental preferences we all have for getting serious writing done.

Whistle britches, a Southern term for fellows who draw a lot of attention to themselves, comes from the sound corduroy trousers make when you walk and the wales rub against each other.

Mealy-mouthed is an old phrase meaning someone's vague, equivocal or beats around the bush. Even Martin Luther used a German version of the insult, Mehl im Maule Behalten. Luther, in fact, was quite experienced at tossing out creative jabs, and thanks to the internet, you can experience some of them yourself with this Lutheran insult generator.

Out of station is an English idiom used in India to mean "going on vacation."

If you're a parent looking for ways to warn your kids not to play with matches, you could do worse than If you play with fire, you'll pee the bed. Similar admonitions are used around the world, apparently because a child can far better relate to the familiar, embarrassing consequences of bedwetting than the more theoretical danger of fire.

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

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Copacetic - 29 February 2016


Mon, Feb 29, 2016


Brand names, children's games, and the etiquette of phone conversations. Those clever plastic PEZ dispensers come in all shapes and sizes -- but where did the word PEZ come from? The popular candy's name is the product of wordplay involving the German word for "peppermint." Also, the story behind that sing-songy playground taunt: "Neener, neener, NEEEEEEEEEEner!" Listen closely, and you'll hear the same melody as other familiar children's songs. Finally, the process of ending a phone conversation is much more complex than you might think. Linguists call this verbal choreography "leave-taking." It's less about the literal meaning of the words and more about finding a way to agree it's time to hang up. Also, Hold 'er Newt, copacetic, drupelet, pluggers, pantywaist, this little piggy, and the word with the bark on it.

FULL DETAILS

When an Austrian candy maker needed a name for his new line of mints, he took the first, middle, and last letters of the German word Pfefferminz, or "peppermint, "to form the brand name PEZ. He later marketed the candies as an alternative for smokers, and packaged them plastic dispensers in the shape of cigarette lighters. The candy proved so popular that now PEZ dispensers come in all shapes and sizes.

A Georgia caller says when her grandfather had to make a sudden stop while driving, he'd yell Hold 'er Newt, she smells alfalfa! This phrase, and variations like Hold 'er Newt, she's a-headin' for the pea patch, and Hold 'er Newt, she's headin' for the barn, alludes to controlling a horse that's starting to bolt for a favorite destination. Occasionally, the name is spelled Knute instead of Newt. The name Newt has long been a synonym for "dolt" or "bumpkin."

Lord Byron continues to make readers think with these words about language: But words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew, upon a thought, produces that which make thousands, perhaps millions, think.

Why does the playground taunt Neener, neener, neener have that familiar singsongy melody?

Jeffrey Salzber, a theater lighting designer and college instructor from Essex Junction, Vermont, says that when explaining to students the need to be prepared for any and all possibilities, he invokes Salzberg's Theory of Pizza: It is better to have pizza you don't want, than to want pizza you don't have.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski's latest puzzle involves changing a movie plot by adding a single letter to the original title. For example, the movie in which Melissa McCarthy plays a deskbound CIA analyst becomes a story about the same character, who's now become very old, but still lively and energetic.

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Although there are many proposed etymologies for the word copacetic, the truth is no one knows the origin of this word meaning "fine" or "extremely satisfactory."

A drupe is a fleshy fruit with a pit, such as a cherry or peach. A drupelet is a smaller version, such as the little seeded parts that make up a raspberry or blackberry. It was the similarity of druplets to a smartphone's keyboard that helped professional namers come up with the now-familiar smartphone name, Blackberry.

A caller from University Park, Maryland, wonders what's really going on when someone says That's a great question. As it turns out, that is a great question.

This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home, this little piggy had corned beef and cabbage, this little piggy had none. At least, that's the way a caller from Sebastian, Florida, remembers the children's rhyme. Most people remember the fourth little piggy eating roast beef. Did you say it a different way? Tell us about it.

The Japanese developers of an early camera named it Kwannon, in honor of the Buddhist goddess of mercy. Later, the company changed the name to Canon.

A Zionsville, Indiana, man recalls that when his mother issued a warning to her kids, she would add for emphasis: And that's the word with the bark on it. The bark in this case refers to rough-hewn wood that still has bark on it--in other words, it's the pure, unadorned truth.

A customer-service representative from Seattle, Washington, is curious about the phrases people use as a part of leave-taking when they're finishing a telephone conversation. Linguists who conduct discourse analysis on such conversations say these exchanges are less about the statements' literal meaning and more about ways of coming to a mutual agreement that it's time to hang up. Incidentally, physicians whose patients ask the most important questions or disclose key information just as the doctor is leaving refer to this as doorknobbing or getting doorknobbed.

Tokuji Hayakawa was an early-20th-century entrepreneur whose inventions included a mechanical pencil he called the Ever-Ready Sharp Pencil, and later renamed the Ever-Sharp Pencil. Over time his company branched into other types of inventions, and its name was eventually shortened to Sharp.

A rock or particle of debris out in space is called a meteoroid. If it enters the earth's atmosphere, it's a called meteor. So why is it called a meteorite when it falls to earth?

If someone's called a pantywaist, they're being disparaged as weak or timid. The term refers to a baby garment popular in the early 20th century that snapped at the waist. Some people misunderstand the term as pantywaste or panty waste, but that's what linguists jokingly call an eggcorn.

A pair of Australian men interrupted their night of partying to foil a robbery, and captured much of it on video. They went on to give a hilarious interview about it all, in which one mentioned that he "tripped over a sign and busted my plugger." The word plugger is an Aussie name for the type of rubber footwear also known as a flip-flop.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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Mustard on It - 22 February 2016


Mon, Feb 22, 2016


When does a word's past make it too sensitive to use in the present? In contra dancing, there's a particular move that dancers traditionally call a gypsy. But there's a growing recognition that many people find the term gypsy offensive. A group of contra dancers is debating whether to drop that term. Plus, the surprising story behind why we use the phrase in a nutshell to sum things up. A hint: it goes all the way back to Homer's Iliad. And finally, games that feature imaginary Broadway shows and tweaked movie titles with new plots. Also, the phrases put mustard on it, lately deceased, resting on one's laurels, and throw your hat into the room, plus similes galore.


FULL DETAILS

A game making the rounds online involves adding the ending -ing to the names of movies, resulting in clever new plots. For example, on our Facebook group, one member observed that The Blair Witch Project becomes The Blair Witch Projecting, "in which high-schooler Blair Witch reads too much into the inflection of her friends' words."

Which is correct: rest on one's laurels or rest on one's morals? The right phrase, which refers to refusing to settle for one's past accomplishments, is the former. In classical times, winners of competitions were awarded crowns made from the fragrant leaves of bay laurels. For the same reason, we bestow such honors as Poet Laureate and Nobel Laureate.

When someone urges you to put some mustard on it, they want you to add some energy and vigor. It's a reference to the piquancy of real, spicy mustard, and has a long history in baseball.

Need a synonym for "nose"? Try this handy word from a 1904 dialect dictionary: sneeze-horn.

Those little musical interludes on radio programs, particularly public radio shows, go by lots of names, including stinger, button, bumper, and bridge. By the way, the fellow who chooses and inserts them in our show is our engineer and technical editor, Tim Felten, who also happens to be a professional musician.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle about Broadway show titles--but with a twist.

There's a long tradition in contra dancing of a particular move called a "gypsy." Many people now consider the term "gypsy" offensive, however, because of the history of discrimination against people of Romani descent, long referred to as gypsies. So a group of contra dancers is debating whether to drop that term. We explain why they should.

In the game of adding -ing to movie titles, Erin Brockovich becomes Erin Brockoviching, the story of a crotchety Irishwoman's habit of complaining.

When is it appropriate to use the word late to describe someone who has died? Late, in this sense, is short for lately deceased. There's no hard and fast time frame, although it's been suggested that anywhere from five to 30 years is about right. It's best to use the word in cases where it may not be clear whether the person is still alive, or when it appears in a historical context, such as "The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 in honor of the late John F. Kennedy."

In the game of appending -ing to a movie title to change its plot, the movies Strangers on a Train and Network both become films about corporate life.

A simile is a rhetorical device that describes by comparing two different things or ideas using the word like or as. But what makes a good simile? The 1910 book Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases, by Yale public speaking instructor Grenville Kleiser, offers a long list similes he'd collected for students to use as models, although some clearly work better than others.

In a nutshell refers to something that's "put concisely," in just a few words. The phrase goes all the way back to antiquity, when the Roman historian Pliny described a copy of The Iliad written in such tiny script that it could fit inside a nutshell.

Among many African-Americans, the term kitchen refers to the hair at the nape of the neck. It may derive from Scots kinch, a "twist of rope" or "kink."

Some of the more successful similes in Grenville Kleiser's 1910 book Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases include The sky was like a peach and Like footsteps on wool and Quaking and quivering like a short-haired puppy after a ducking.

To throw your hat into the room is to ascertain whether someone's angry with you, perhaps stemming from the idea of tossing your hat in ahead of to see if someone shoots at it. Ronald Reagan used the expression this way when apologizing to Margaret Thatcher for invading Grenada in 1983 without notifying the British in advance.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

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Proof in the Pudding - 15 February 2016


Mon, Feb 15, 2016


Have you ever offered to foster a dog or cat, but wound up adopting instead? There's an alliterative term for that. And when you're on the job, do niceties like "Yes, ma'am" and "No, sir" make you sound too formal? Not if it comes naturally. And what about the term "auntie" (AHN-tee)? In some circles, it's considered respectful to address a woman that way, even if she's not a relative. Also, the old saying "The proof is in the pudding" makes no sense when you think about it. That's because the original meaning of pudding had nothing to do with the kind we eat for dessert today.

FULL DETAILS

When people who foster rescue animals break down and adopt the animal instead, you've happily committed a foster flunk.

A native of Houston, Texas, moves to a few hundred miles north to Dallas and discovers that people there say she's wrong to call the road alongside the highway a feeder road rather than a frontage road. Actually, both terms are correct. The Texas Highway Man offers a helpful glossary of road and traffic terms, particularly those used in Texas.

A listener from Silver City, New Mexico, writes that when he was a child and pouted with his lower lip stuck out, his aunt would say Stick that out a little farther, and I'll write the Ten Commandments on it with a mop.

Snarky refers to someone or something "irritable," "sharply critical," or "ill-tempered." It goes back to a 19th-century word meaning "to snort."

According to the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English, the expression throw it over the hill means "to get rid of something." In Appalachia, the phrase can also mean "wrap it up," as in bring something to a close.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a quiz that's all about the word for. An example: There's a cave that accommodates a large ursine mammal when it hibernates during the winter. But what's it "for"?

A listener in Billings, Montana, says his brother is an English teacher who corrects his pronunciation of forte, meaning "strong point." Pedants will insist that it should be pronounced FORT, but that reflects an assumption about its etymology that's flat-out wrong. Besides, the far more common pronunciation now is FOR-tay. The bottom line is t's a word that raises hackles either way you say it, so it's best to replace it with a synonym.

If someone spilled a box of paper clips, for example, would you say that they wasted the paper clips, even though the clips could be picked up and re-used? Although most people wouldn't, this sense of waste meaning "to spill" is used among many African-American speakers in the American South, particularly in Texas.

Our discussion of eponymous laws prompted Peg Brekel of Casa Grande, Arizona, to send us one based on her years of experience in a pharmacy, where she had to keep minding the counter even during her lunch break. Peg's Law: The number of customers who come to the counter is directly proportional to how good your food tastes hot.

Is saying Yes, Ma'am and No, Sir when addressing someone in conversation too formal or off-putting? Not if it's clear that those niceties come naturally to you.

A Milwaukee, Wisconsin, listener who heard our conversation about the phrase sharp as a marshmallow sandwich wonders about a similar expression that denotes a person who's not all that bright: sharp as a bag of marsh. Variations of this insult include sharp as a bowling ball and sharp as bag of wet mice.

 A dancer in the Broadway production of The Lion King says he and his colleagues are curious about the use of the term Auntie (pronounced "AHN-tee) to refer to an older woman, regardless of whether she's a blood relative. Auntie is often used among African-American speakers in the American South as a sign of respect for an older woman for whom one has affection.

If you're in the three-comma club, you're a billionaire--a reference to the number of commas needed to separate all those zeroes in your net worth.

The verb to kibitz has more than one meaning. It can mean "to chitchat" or "to look on giving unsolicited advice." The word comes to English through Yiddish, and may derive from German Kiebitz, a reference to a folk belief that the bird is a notorious meddler.

On the face of it, the expression the proof is in the pudding doesn't make sense. It's a shortening of the proverbial saying, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Pudding is an old word for sausage, and in this case the proof is the act of testing it by tasting it.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Hot Mess - 8 February 2016


Mon, Feb 08, 2016


Sneaky contract lingo, advice for writing well, and preserving a dying language. Say you’re scrolling through an online transaction where you're asked to read the "Terms and Conditions." Do you actually read them or just check the box and move on? If you move on, watch out for the Herod’s clause. Plus: When does your own communication style make you sound out-of-date? A 50-something boss wants suggestions on speaking with and writing for his younger co-workers. Finally, if we lose a language, how many of our childhood memories perish in the process? Also, dark as Egypt, not quite cricket, down to the lick log, light dawns on Marblehead, and sneezing to the truth, and hot mess.

FULL DETAILS

When you get to the stage of an online transaction where you're asked to read the "Terms and Conditions," do you actually read them? Or do you just check the box and move on? A London security firm once offered free use of a WiFi hotspot, provided the users agreed to sign over their firstborn child "for the duration of eternity." Sure enough, some people signed. The company called that sneaky contract language a Herod clause, after the Biblical king who ordered the deaths of firstborn babies in Bethlehem.

The expression dark as Egypt means "really dark," and is a reference to the story in the book of Exodus of the ten plagues that descended upon Egypt, the ninth of these being complete darkness.

If you're down to the lick log, you're close to the end of negotiations, or nearing some kind of decision. This expression is associated with cattle ranching, a salt lick being a place where the herd congregates. The 19th-century frontiersman Davy Crockett used the term in his autobiography.

Not quite cricket means "not proper," "substandard," or perhaps even "illegal." The phrase is a reference to the world's second most popular sport, cricket, and derives from the 19th-century notion that the "Spirit of the Game" is the epitome of good sportsmanship.

Quiz John Chaneski shares limericks about things people were talking about in 2015.

A high school teacher in Indianapolis reports her students use the verb finesse to mean "to steal."

Here's a riddle: Within a fountain crystal clear / A golden apple doth appear / No doors or locks to this stronghold / Yet thieves break in and steal the gold. What is it?

A 50-something boss in Reno, Nevada, wants suggestions on speaking with and writing for his younger co-workers. When does your own communication style make you sound out-of-date, and when does using younger folks' slang make you sound like you're trying too hard?

A Massachusetts native living in Washington, D.C. says her professor and classmates had no idea what she meant by a light dawns on Marblehead moment. It's a reference to the town of Marblehead in her home state, on an outcropping of land where the sun first hits the coast. It's also a pun on Marblehead, meaning someone who's dense.

Imagine that you're the last living speaker of a dying language.  What memories do the words of your childhood evoke? What do you miss talking about? Those are questions raised by Precious Little, a play by Madeleine George. Martha reads a moving passage in which an elderly speaker of a dying language counts to 20 in her native tongue.

The term hot mess refers to someone whose life is chaotic or otherwise somewhat dysfunctional. Heard primarily in the South, hot mess is often used affectionately, suggesting that the person is attractive despite the messiness of their life.

If someone sneezes while you're saying something, a Yiddish speaker might say G'nossem tsum emes, or "The sneeze confirmed the truth," meaning that what you just said is true, and the sternutation proves it. An English speaker expresses the same idea with the phrases sneezin' to the truth, sneezing on the truth, or the sneeze confirmed the truth.

Someone who's cheap or just likes to complain that they don't have much money are said to be poor-mouthing. This expression goes back to at least the 1850's, and originated in the American South, although now it's more widespread.

A Madison, Wisconsin, caller says his father will eat an apple down to the core, then call out "Apple core, Baltimore! Who's your friend?" and if the person doesn't answer fast enough, his dad will throw the core at him. This game, and variations of it, was recorded by the researchers gathering folklore for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930's.  

In parts of the South, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English, the word mess can denote "a witty, clever, or mischievous person."

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Noon Balloon to Rangoon (Rebroadcast) - 1 February 2016


Mon, Feb 01, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words," tricks and tips for writers: Is there a word you keep having to look up in the dictionary, no matter how many times you've looked it up before? Maybe it's time for a mnemonic device. And: a listener shares a letter from Kurt Vonnegut himself, with some reassuring advice about what to do when the words just won't come. Plus, what does it mean when someone asks if you came in on the noon balloon? Also: bog standard, brumate, Ricky Rescue, Ned in the primer, a horse apiece, Blackacre vs. Whiteacre, childish vs. childlike, do the needful, and Do what?.


FULL DETAILS

If you think back on all the words you've looked up in the past year, only to turn around and forget their definitions immediately, Martha’s New Year's resolution sounds like a no-brainer: be a little more mindful, and take care to actually remember the meanings of words like enervate (it's "to drain someone or something of vitality").

In place of pardon or excuse me, it's common to hear a Texan or a Southerner say, Do what? Variations include What now?, Do how?, and Do which?

To brumate, meaning "to hibernate during the winter," comes from the wintry word brumal. So if you're tired of using the same old wintry adjectives, try describing the weather as brumal.

Hark your racket, meaning, "shush," is a variant of hark your noise, which pops up in Michigan, Wisconsin and Maine as far back as the 1940's.

Columnist Lucy Kellaway wrote in the Financial Times about feeling less anxious and fearful in the workplace as she gets older. She concluded that such feelings are bog standard, a British expression meaning "common" or "widespread."

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a word game based on the preferences of Mookie the Cow, whose favorite things have names that feature moo sounds. That loose Hawaiian garment, for example.

To be like Ned in the primer, meaning "troublesome" or "rambunctious," refers to an old series of children’s books—also known as primers—about Ned and Nancy, a mischievous boy and a straitlaced girl.

Do the needful is a phrase commonly heard from people in India working in tech support. Though it's fallen out of fashion in British dialects, it's still common in India to mean "do what you must."

A while back, we talked about the teasing nickname Billy Badass, thrown around in the military to refer to someone a little too gung ho. In the firefighting and EMT professions, the equivalent name is Ricky Rescue.

Do you think I came in on the noon balloon? is a colorful alternative to Do you think I was born yesterday? The phrase pops up both in the columns of the late sportswriter Frank Finch and the 1967 novelty song, "Noon Balloon to Rangoon," by Nervous Norvus.

In real estate law, names like Blackacre, Whiteacre, and Greenacre are fictitious stand-in names for estates or plots of land used by attorneys when discussing hypothetical cases.

An Upper Michigan listener with form of dyslexia told us he wrote to Kurt Vonnegut years ago about his frustration with trying to become a published writer. Vonnegut wrote back, assuring that when you care enough about your subject, the right words will come, and you need not worry about spelling—or getting it published. Here's hoping the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library gets a copy.

A horse apiece, meaning "six of one, half a dozen of the other," comes from an old dice gambling game to describe a draw.

When a cat finds that perfect square on the floor that's being illuminated by the sun coming through a glass window, you might call that spot a cat trap.

A tech professional wants a word that means the opposite of ingest, as in ingesting a video. Specifically, he needs something that sounds like it's worth 200 bucks an hour. Divest, maybe?

The Stendhal syndrome is a term used to describe feeling overwhelmed by the beauty of a work of art. The name comes from the French writer Stendhal, who wrote about the dizzying sensation of seeing the art in Florence. It's somewhat similar to the Jerusalem syndrome, where visitors to that city are overtaken with emotion from standing in the same spots as biblical figures.

There's a difference in connotation between childish and childlike. Childish, like many words ending in -ish, has a derogatory vibe. Childlike, on the other hand, has more to do with something possessing the charm and wonder of a child.

Kurt Vonnegut gave us this timeless quote in his novel Cat's Cradle: "People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order, so they'll have good voice boxes in case there’s ever anything really meaningful to say."

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Catch My Fade (Rebroadcast) - 25 January 2016


Mon, Jan 25, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words," reaching out in the digital age: If you're sending out party invitations, what's a sure-fire way to get hold of everyone? Email? Snailmail? Facebook? Texting? Twitter? Or a plain old-fashioned phone call?  Different folks have different preferences, and accommodating all those communication styles can be a challenge. Also, when someone says Catch my fade, is that good news or bad? And: what to do if your cheese is blinky. Plus, pipe down, cease and desist, peach and bungalow, rush the growler, pagophilic, a famous insult from Hollywood, and a grandma's edgy phrase for washing up in the sink.

FULL DETAILS

There are two kinds of readers in the world: those who blow past a word they don't know, and those who drop everything, run to the dictionary, and dig and dig until they figure out what in the world something like pagophilic means. Yes, we fall into the latter camp. And pagophilia, if you're wondering, means "a love of ice."

Cease and desist may seem redundant to the layperson—it's sort of like saying "stop and stop"—but for lawyers, it's a leak-proof way to say, stop and don’t ever do this again.

Pipe down, meaning "shush," comes from the days when a ship's bosun (or bo's'n or bos'n, also known as a boatswain), would actually blow a whistle to tell the rest of the crew that the wind had shifted or a certain action needed to take place.

We say rush the growler to mean "go fetch the booze" because, back in the 1880s, people got around the new liquor laws by sending kids scurrying down to the bar with an empty growler in hand to fill up. Variations of this include chase the duck and chase the can.

An old book of proverbs gave us this one, which could be taken as a good thing or a warning: Wedlock is a padlock.

Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski is back with a game called Definitely Cryptic, where the article "a" is combined with a word to form a new word. Try this one: "glass container; slightly open."

A bunch of English words actually take from the names of old places: peach comes from Persia, bungalow refers to a house "of the Bengal type," and laconic refers to the region of Sparta famous as a place where people valued speech that was brief and to the point.

The slang threat I’ll butter your necktie! was made famous by the 1950 film Harvey.

We spoke a little while ago about quickie baths, which one listener called a Georgia bath, but we got a letter from someone who’s grandmother used to refer to it as swabbin’ the vitals, that last word sounding like "vittles."

Preheat, as in preheat the oven, doesn't mean "heat before heating." It's a single word with a concrete idea, akin to "prepay." It's perfectly acceptable to use.

An old expression from Yorkshire: I'm not as green as I am cabbage-looking, meaning, "I may look new to this, but I'm not."

If you're sending out party invitations, what's the sure-fire way to get ahold of everyone? Mail? Email? Facebook? Texting? Do we even know each other's phone numbers anymore? Why can't there just be one system that everyone uses?!

Larovers to catch meddlers, layovers for meddlers, and many variations thereof, are among the comically evasive things parents say when their kids ask, "What's that?" It essentially means, "shoo."

Invasivores, or people who eat invasive species for, among other reasons, getting rid of them, are really trendy right now. And a bit more reasonable than freegans.

Catch my fade, meaning, "I'm going to beat you up," takes from a 100-year-old usage of fade. To fade someone meant to punish, beat, or conquer another.

A listener who works as a proofreader for academic texts wrote in with his own eponymous law that, like the academic texts the law addresses, is way too long to transcribe here.

When something's blinky, it smells bad enough to make you blink. Spoiled pimento cheese, for example, can be blinky. The origin of blinky is uncertain, although it may derive from on the blink, as in "not working correctly."

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

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Buckle Down (Rebroadcast) - 18 January 2016


Mon, Jan 18, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words": 'Tis the season for book recommendations! Martha's enjoying an armchair tour of important places in the history of our language, and Grant recommends relaxing with books that make great reading for both children and adults. Plus, are you the type of shopper who gets in and out of a store quickly? Or would you rather research that purchase in advance and then try before you buy? No matter where you fall on the shopping scale, psychologists have a name for you. And here's a wintry question: if you're panking something, just what are you doing? Plus, how to pronounce short-lived, a slang term for flirting, ass over teakettle, and an amusing 19th-century rant about young people's slang.

FULL DETAILS

We've talked before about those abbreviated baths that one listener refers to as a Georgia bath. Listeners showered us with calls about more names for those abbreviated cleanups, including birdbaths and kitty baths.

Before you turn up your nose at the expression ass over teakettle, know that our first evidence for this phrase is in William Carlos Williams' story "White Mule." A great idiom from a great writer. Other topsy-turvy phrases suggesting the same idea: head over heels and head over tin cup.

Complaining about young people's slang is nothing new. Browsing Google Books, Grant stumbled upon an amusing example from the 19th century called "The Age of Slang." Oh, my stars and garters!

If you pronounce short-lived with a long i, you're saying it correctly--at least by the standards of the 1600's. Today it's far more commonly pronounced with a short i, though both pronunciations are acceptable.

An ailurophile from Dallas, Texas, wrote us to say her cat has a hobby of poking around in the closet and finding hidden nooks to nap in, or as she calls it, closeteering. That's also a great term for generally digging around in the closet for stuff you haven’t seen in years.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski tests our knowledge of Latin by way of brand awareness this week with a game about brands like Lego, which takes its name from Danish leg godt, meaning "play well." As it happens, the Latin term lego might be loosely translated as "I put together."

Buck up, meaning toughen up or get it together, has a long history stemming from the days when travelling trunks had buckles on them that needed to be fastened. Over the years, variations like buckle down and buckle have meant both "to woo someone" and "to defy authority."

Those quickie baths commonly called bird baths are also known as pit-stops or, as one rather colorful grandma wrote us, a PTA. We'll let you figure out what that stands for.

A high school student called in to ask about a term his peers use for flirting: chopping. Ever heard it?

Spit baths are another common form of quickie baths, wherein a moist towel is used to wipe schmutz off a child's face. One fraternity member emailed us to say that when he was in college, over-spraying with cologne in lieu of a shower was called an SAE bath, named for a rival fraternity.

To pank, as in to pank down snow for skiing or pank down hair with Aqua Net, is a common term heard in the upper peninsula of Michigan.

Are you a satisficer or a maximizer? The former is the kind of person who runs into the store, takes a quick peek at the options, and gets out of there fast with the simple option that meets their basic needs. For an idea of what maximizers are all about, just read the Amazon reviews for home appliances and you'll get the idea.

It's that time of year when Martha and Grant share their book recommendations for the holiday gift season. This year, Martha gives an enthusiastic thumbs-up to Letters of Note, The Sense of Style, and Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain. Grant offers two Newbery Medal winners: From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and The One and Only Ivan, about a gorilla who lives in a shopping mall zoo.

Words like discombobulate and blustrification are made-up words intended to sound fancy and Latinate. Discombobulate, in turn, inspired the Recombobulation Area in the Milwaukee airport.

The word hoodlum first pops up in the 1870's in San Francisco to refer to the exact thing it does now: guys who are up to no good. In the journal Notes and Queries, you'll find all kinds of discussion on hoodlum.

The French have a musical term for paperclip. They call it le trombone.

Martha Barnette gets a call from Martha Barnett, her Canadian tocaya who's missing an "e" at the end of her last name. On the Global News website, you can see that the name Martha, perhaps now an anomaly in Canada, peaked in popularity around the late 1950s.

After our episode that mentioned eponymous laws, we got a call from Darby Venza from Austin, Texas, who came up with this bit of wisdom, otherwise known as Venza's Razor: Whenever a garden hose or extension cord can catch on something, it will. True that.

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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Curse of Knowledge (Rebroadcast) - 11 January 2016


Mon, Jan 11, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words," it's all about terms of endearment: If your loved one is far away for a long time, you're probably tired of just saying "I miss you" over and over. For variety's sake, there are some creative alternatives to that phrase.  Also, what do you call the kind of friend you can go without seeing for years, then pick right back up with, as though no time has passed? Martha calls them her "Anyway friends," because they always resume the conversation with the transitional term "Anyway . . ." And if a characteristic is "ingrained and long-established," do you say it is "deep-seated" or "deep-SEEDED"? Plus, Cajun slang, burning platforms, cutting circumbendibus, under the weather, smell a mouse, yard sales on ski slopes, how to pronounce mayonnaise and won, and the curse of knowledge.

FULL DETAILS


If someone clapped out the rhythm of a song you knew, would you recognize it? It's pretty unlikely, given what's called the curse of knowledge—to the person with the song in their head, it's obvious, but you can't expect anyone else to hear it. This is among many fascinating concepts discussed in Steven Pinker's new book, The Sense of Style, which some are calling the new Strunk and White.

You may pronounce mayonnaise at least a couple of different ways. Although it's clear the word came into English via French, its origin is a matter of some dispute.

After we spoke a couple weeks ago about eponymous laws, a listener who works as a janitor gave us one of his own: Given any two rolls of toilet paper, the larger roll will get smaller before the smaller gets used up.

When something's just the beatin'est (or beatingest or beatenist), that means it's splendid, or puzzling. The term is most commonly heard in the South and South Midlands of the United States.

Pun alert: if you have a bee in your hand, what's in your eye? Beauty. Think about it.

Our Quiz Master John Chaneski leads us on a puzzle hunt, starting in a world capital that's a homophone for a type of music or food. (Hint: This Asian capital hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics.)

When we're not feeling well, we might say we're under the weather. But then, given that weather happens above our heads, aren't we always under it? The idiomatic phrase under the weather simply means the weather's affecting our bodies.

There should be a word for the kind of friend you can go without seeing for years, then reconnect with as though no time has gone by. Martha calls those her  "Anyway" friends, because they just pick right up with "Anyway . . . "

Skiing is fun until you wipe out, flinging two skis, two poles, and perhaps your lunch, all over the place. They call that a yard sale.

Of all the Cajun slang we've heard, "I'm gonna unclimb this derrick and give you your satisfy" is among the best of it. Cajun speech is unique for having retained elements of French syntax that even French-speaking Canada doesn't use anymore.

The burning platform is a trendy phrase in business at the moment, used for a crisis that demands immediate action. It refers to a guy on an oil rig that caught fire, and he had the choice of staying on the rig and facing certain death, or jump into the icy water on the slim chance that he might survive.

Steven Pinker's new book, The Sense of Style, which Martha cites among her all-time favorite books about writing, has just the right message: don't worry so much about the errors, because you'll make them, and if writing isn't fun, you're doing it wrong.

If the phrase I miss you feels drained of meaning after using it over and over, try this line from To Kill a Mockingbird as a substitute: "I wonder how much of the day I spend just callin' after you."

Deep-seated is the proper term for ensconced, rather than deep-seeded, although the confusion makes sense, given the imagery of seeds taking root.

Contrary to what your dictionary might tell you, there's no one right way to pronounce won.

Cutting circumbendibus is that thing you do when you spot someone you really don't want to talk to, so you dart across an alley or do anything to avoid saying hello.

Unlike smelling a rat, smelling a mouse isn't necessarily a bad thing—you could smell a mouse, thereby sussing out that someone has good news to share, or just a fun prank to play.

In French, there are colloquialisms translating to "the mayonnaise is setting" and "to make the mayonnaise rise."

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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An Ear For Wine (Rebroadcast) - 4 January 2016


Mon, Jan 04, 2016


This week on "A Way with Words": Creative communication in a noisy world! Writing a clever 140-character tweet isn't easy. But you know what's even more impressive? Working all 26 letters of the alphabet into just one sentence! The term for that type of sentence is pangram. Naturally, there's a whole Twitter feed featuring accidental pangrams from all over. And: More people are giving themselves coffee names to avoid confusion when ordering that cup to go. After all, what barista is going to misspell Elvis? And what's the difference between a purse, a handbag, and a pocketbook? Martha and Grant root around for an answer. Plus: center vs. centre, capital vs. lowercase letters, the origin of sommelier, and an alternative to showering when travelling in an RV.

FULL DETAILS

The disgruntled consumer who tweeted My "prize" in my Cracker Jack box...whoever does quality control needs to get fired accidentally did something miraculous. This message includes all 26 letters of the alphabet, making it a pangram. The twitter feed @PangramTweets shares random pangrams from around the internet.

A wine expert with a bachelor's degree in linguistics and a minor in French wonders about the origin of the term sommelier. It shares a root with sumpter, meaning "pack animal." Sommelier used to refer generally to the person in charge of the provisions carried by a pack animal, and later came to specify the person who oversees the provisions in a wine cellar.

"The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed," writes Rebecca Solnit in The Faraway Nearby. As Solnit observes, it's true that a book is just an inert object on a shelf that takes on a new life when opened: "A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another."


Many people pronounce the word groceries as if it were spelled grosheries. The more common pronunciation, though, is the sibilant GROSS-er-reez.

Someone setting out to write a pangram drafted this tragic little tale: The explorer was frozen in his big kayak just after making some queer discoveries.

Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a pretty good memory for adages and proverbs, but it's not perfect. Here, he gives us some classic lines where the last word is off—like, for example, a clear conscience is a soft willow.

Do you call that carryall for personal items a purse, a handbag, or a pocketbook? The answer may depend less on your location and more on your age.

There's no difference in meaning between center and centre, but there is an interesting story behind the change in spelling. In the early 19th century, independence-minded lexicographer Noah Webster campaigned for a new American orthography. While his countrymen rejected the British spellings centre, theatre, and defence, they rejected Webster's attempts to replace soup with soop and women with wimmen.

We've talked before about that stuff that builds up in your eyes after a night's sleep, and listeners keep chiming in with more, including googlies, eye-winkers, and from a listener who grew up in the Philippines, morning stars.

A Florida Gators football fan grew up travelling to road games in an RV. When it came time to wash up, her family members would take Georgia baths, meaning they'd wash their important parts in the RV sink. Beats the alternative Marine shower, where no water is necessary—just a ton of perfume or cologne to douse yourself with.

Is there a writer who best evokes the sense of being from the place that you call home? For Martha, Jesse Stuart's writing about W-hollow in Kentucky perfectly captures that part of the Bluegrass State, while Grant notes that the 1982 book Blue Highways nails what it's like to be a Missourian.

There's a reason why we have both capital and lowercase letters. As the alphabet went from the Phoenicians to the Greeks to the Romans, letters took on new sounds, and the need to write quickly brought about the introduction of lowercase versions. David Sacks does a great job of tracing the history of majuscules and minuscules in his book Letter Perfect.

An election official in Arcata, California, wonders how the / symbol should be pronounced on ballots for the visually impaired. The symbol is becoming more and more popular as a kind of conjunction. In the U.K., they call it a stroke, or virgule, but in the United States, slash is the most common term. As University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan has pointed out, millennials have even taken to spelling out the entire word slash in texts.

If your name is too difficult for the employees at Starbucks to accurately write on the side of a coffee cup, we suggest you take on a coffee-nym. Can't go wrong with Elvis.

To reef something, means to "tug hard" or "push vigorously," as you might with a window that's stuck. It comes from the sailing term reef, which refers to an action used to make a sail smaller.

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Electric Hootenanny (Rebroadcast) - 28 December 2015


Mon, Dec 28, 2015


Bathroom walls, missing graffiti, and social media. Where have all the cute quips on bathroom stalls gone?  We wonder about the apparent decline of restroom graffiti. Are people saving their witticisms for Twitter and Facebook?  And: If there were a universal law named in your honor, what would it be? Martha says in her case, "Barnette's Law" would be "The lane you just got out of is the one that ends up going faster."  Always.  Finally: Andre the Giant fancies a cocktail called "The American." The recipe? Fill a 40-ounce pitcher with various liquors, then stir. Eeeeuww! Plus, using Master vs. Mister in correspondence, how fixin' to became finna, the meaning of derp, and what happens when you take a forest bath in Japan.

FULL DETAILS

An eponymous law is a joking bit of wisdom named after someone, like Murphy's Law, which states Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Amid the rise of social media oversharing, you'll notice at least one peculiar change: people don't seem to write on the walls of public restrooms anymore. But if you're in search of some good old fashioned bathroom stall graffiti, we recommend checking out Allen Walker Read's Classic American Graffiti.

Cyril Northcote Parkinson's Law should be familiar to anyone who's ever been assigned a minor task and a long weekend to get it done—"work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

Finna, a slang variant of fixing to, meaning "to be about to do something," has been widely distributed through hip-hop lyrics. Its formation is similar to gonna, from going to.

Speaking of eponymous laws, do you know what Cole's Law is? (Hint: You might order it as a side dish with your fish and fries.)

Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski went through his day planner to combine activities with the abbreviations of days and months. For example, when it's a relief after a long week just to get in bed, you're talking about Satin.

There's no definite rule for putting the apostrophe s after names like Liz or Alex when talking about Liz's wedding or Alex's school, but we know for certain that most people say, and write out, the possessive s.

Herblock's Law is a bummer for anyone who, like Grant, loved the socks sold at The Gap fifteen years ago: "If it's good, they'll stop making it."

The idiom to cut off your nose to spite your face has been attributed to a Medieval nun who described women cutting off their noses to look unattractive and thus preserve their chastity. Whether that story is true, cutting off someone's nose was a pretty common form of punishment back then. The gist of that saying also appears in Henri IV's statement about burning Paris to save Paris.

We've spoken on the show about the suicide drink—that thing where you mix everything at the soda fountain into one cup. And we've also covered the Matt Dillon, when a bartender pours whatever's in the bar mat into a cocktail glass. But the actor Cary Elwes recently revealed that Andre the Giant fancies a drink called The American, which consists of 40 ounces of various liquors all in one pitcher.

If you're into the manners and customs of correspondence, don't forget that a boy under the age of about 12 is referred to as a Master, and a man over the age of 18 is a Mister. It goes back to the time of guild workers.

Does Betteridge's Law of Headlines Make Us Look Fat? No. But it is the eponymous law that states, "If it ends in a question, the answer is 'no.'"

We've talked on the show before about the language of grief and the use of euphemisms like, I'm sorry for your loss, or, passed away. A retired Middlebury College history professor wrote us to say that it's all very well to be against euphemisms, but you also have to be respectful of other people's feelings.

A hootenanny, commonly thought of as a party in Appalachia, is also a term for German pancakes. But when you look in the Dictionary of American Regional English, you'll notice that hootenanny is synonymous with doohickey or thingamajig, and can refer to, among other things, a sleigh, something to sharpen shears, or an imaginary object.

Segal's Law states, "A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure."

It's largely because of the way we feel while riding in a car or on a train that we use the prepositions in a car and on a train.

Shinrin-yoku, the Japanese term for walking around in the woods that literally means "a forest bath" is a beautiful descriptor for what a hike should be—an opportunity to stroll through nature and wash off the stress of everyday life.

Many kids are saying derp in place of duh, and the phenomenon is largely due to Trey Parker and Matt Stone's use of the term in their movie Baseketball and their television show South Park.

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Do Me a Solid (Rebroadcast) - 21 December 2015


Mon, Dec 21, 2015


This week on "A Way with Words": What's in YOUR spice rack? Say you're cooking up a pot of chili, and you need to add more of that warm, earthy, powdered spice. Do you reach for a bottle of KOO-min? KYOO-min? Or are you going to add KUMM-in? The pronunciation given in dictionaries may surprise you. Also: some people have a problem with using the word issue instead of problem. And if you're talking to a group of men and women, be careful about using the term you guys. Plus, sharp as a marshmallow sandwich, the phrase of an evening, what your paycheck has to do with salt, and tips for breaking bad grammar habits.

FULL DETAILS

Cumin, a spice often used in chili powder, is easy to think of as an exotic ingredient with an equally exotic pronunciation. But many dictionaries insist that its pronunciation rhymes with comin.'

Someone on the dull side might be described as sharp as a marshmallow sandwich.

If you're talking to group of people of mixed genders, it's fine to address them as You guys. After all, English lacks a distinctive second-person plural. Still, if the usage offends someone, it's best to address them in whatever way makes them feel comfortable.

The gold or silver light you see shimmering on the water at night is called moonglade or moonwake. Similarly, the sun shining on the water is called sunglade or sunwake.

Broken pieces of pottery, commonly known as shards, are also referred to as sherds by professional archaeologists.

What word is both a verb meaning to make shiny and clean and a demonym for the people of an Eastern European country? Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski asks this and other questions in his game, Word Olympics.

Dutch people are no more prone than anyone else to splitting the bill at a restaurant, so why is that practice called going Dutch?

Listener K.C. Gandee, a whitewater rafting guide from Bethel, Maine, tipped us off to lingo from his world. Dead-sticking is when the guide is doing all the paddling and no one else is. A lily dipper is someone who barely paddles while everyone else works hard. Dump-trucking is when the raft nearly capsizes and everyone in it gets thrown out.

When you have a habit of using a particular bit of poor grammar, rote exercises like writing out a script to practice may help you get past it. Practicing the correct usage by singing to yourself may work, too.

To sip a mint julep on the veranda of an evening may be a distinctly Southern activity, but the phrases of an evening or of a morning, meaning "in the evening" or "in the morning," go back at least to the 1600s and the Diary of Samuel Pepys.

If you're making a salary, be grateful that it's paid out in dollars and not salt. In antiquity, salt was a valuable commodity, and the term salary comes from the Latin salarium, the portions of salt paid to Roman soldiers.

Open your kitchen cupboard or a cookbook, and chances are you'll come across a lot of spices and peppers with recognizable names that you still can't pronounce properly, like turmeric, cayenne, and habanero. We often give foreign-sounding inflections to foreign-looking words, and many times we're wrong.

To do me a solid or do someone a solid, meaning "to do someone a favor," may be related to the slang term solid meaning "a trustworthy prison inmate."

A listener from Madison, Wisconsin, has an issue with the word issue. She doesn't like it being used as a synonym for problem. But the American Heritage Usage Panel has come around to accepting the new use of issue, so if that's a problem, take issue with them.

Tautologies in names are pretty funny, like the Sahara Desert, which basically means "Desert Desert," or the country of East Timor, which in Malay means "East East."

Let's settle this once and for all: George Bernard Shaw is responsible for the sentiment behind the quote, "Youth is wasted on the young." But Fred Shapiro's Yale Book of Quotations indicates that the history of the saying isn't so simple.

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Wolf Whistle - 14 December 2015


Mon, Dec 14, 2015


Gifts for book lovers. Martha recommends one for lovers of libraries and another for students of Spanish. Grant suggests some enchanting novels for young readers. When it comes to books, though, you can't always judge them by their original titles. One of Jane Austen's greatest novels was originally called "First Impressions." Only later did she swap out that name for the alliterative--and immortal--"Pride and Prejudice." And: Imagine a favorite colleague is moving away for a fantastic new job. What's a good word to describe that mix of feelings where you're really happy for that person but also a little sad? Plus, word quiz for those who love to study, a new-ish meaning of basic, wolf whistling, canvassing, Cobb salad, and how to pronounce the name Colin.

FULL DETAILS

One of the greatest novels in all of American literature was originally titled Catch-18. Then Joseph Heller found out that a novel about World War II called Mila 18 already existed. So he changed his book to Catch-22. And guess which American classic was originally titled, Something That Happened, before its author read a Robert Burns poem about a farmer who destroys the home of a little mouse?

Looking for a word that denotes being really excited for someone, but also a little sad? One option is bittersweet, but if you'd like a term that's not quite so overused, yayboo is taking hold online. The Modern Greek word charmolype translates as "bitter joy" or "sweet sadness," although it's often used in a religious context, particularly around the mix of feelings evoked by crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

The word canvassing, as in, going door-to-door passing out political information, has an obscure etymology. It's thought to be related to the use of canvas material either for sifting things out or tossing someone in the air. Either way, it probably has to do with a kind of "shaking out" or vetting to discern the truth.

We all know that lusty two-note whistle directed at an attractive passerby. But how did that particular sound come about? If we trace the earliest record of that sound, known as a wolf whistle, we find this 1943 Tex Avery cartoon.

Today the title War and Peace is practically synonymous with "incredibly long novel." If Tolstoy had kept the book's original title, however, our synonym for such a hefty epic would be The Year 1805.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game for those who appreciate the study of things like comparatively thick cuts of beef or people who go to shake your hand only to pull theirs away and smooth down their hair.

In today's schools, mean girls might dismiss a classmate who wears Ugg boots, drinks sugary lattes, and listens to Top 40 radio as basic. This adjective for a slightly vapid, mainstream trend-follower first showed up in hip-hop lyrics around 2005.

Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice was originally going to be called First Impressions.

Since the 1930's, a traditional Cobb salad has included hard-boiled eggs, avocado, bacon, chicken, blue cheese and tomatoes. The recipe is often credited to a restaurateur named Bob Cobb.

Pity all the fellows named Colin whose name is often mispronounced to rhyme with the punctuation mark (or the body part). General Colin Powell's rise to public prominence in the 1980's apparently prompted many people to adopt his unusual long-o pronunciation.

A peppercorn payment, or peppercorn rent, is a term used by attorneys for small, below-market-value payments for a property.

For the book lovers on your gift list, Martha recommends, Library: An Unquiet History, by Matthew Battles. For younger readers, Grant suggests C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series, starting with The Magician’s Nephew. For adults who loved the Narnia books, he also recommends Lev Grossman's The Magicians.

A caller from East Tennessee swears that he's heard ducks imitating the sounds of some nearby geese, and he's probably right. Animals do indeed have the ability to mimic the sounds and behaviors of other species, but that doesn't mean the animals are speaking a similar "language."

Before William Golding named his novel The Lord of the Flies, based on a reference to Beelzebub, the book's working title was Strangers From Within.

Why do words that begin with sn—sneer, snarl, snot, snide, snake, snooty—all have negative connotations? Phonaesthesia, a phenomenon whereby we associate certain sounds with particular meanings, may hold the answer. Linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker writes about such sound symbolism in his book The Stuff of Thought.

The book Martha most recently gave as a gift is Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish by Joseph Keenan. She says it'll help bump your Spanish up to the next level, even if you speak just a tiny bit.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

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Busted Melon - 7 December 2015


Mon, Dec 07, 2015


When writing textbooks about slavery, which words best reflect its cold, hard reality? Some historians are dropping the word "slave" in favor of terms like "enslaved person" and "captive," arguing that these terms are more accurate. And raising a bilingual child is tough enough, but what about teaching them three languages? It's an ambitious goal, but there's help if you want to try. Plus, a class of sixth-graders wonders about the playful vocabulary of The Lord of the Rings. Where did Tolkien come up with this stuff? Also, funny school mascots, grawlixes, that melon's busted, attercop, Tomnoddy, purgolders, and dolly vs. trolley vs. hand truck.

FULL DETAILS

In an earlier episode, we discussed funny school mascot names. Listeners wrote in with more, including the Belfry Bats (the high school mascot of Belfry, Montana) and the Macon Whoopie hockey team, from Macon, Georgia.

A Fort Worth, Texas, couple disagrees about how to pronounce the word gymnast, but both JIM-nist and the more evenly stressed JIM-NAST are fine.

A musician from Youngstown, Ohio, is designing an album cover for his band's latest release. He wants to use a grawlix, one of those strings of punctuation marks that substitute for profanity. "Beetle Bailey" cartoonist Mort Walker coined the term, but is there a grammar of grawlixes?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a puzzle about words and phrases that people have tried to trademark, including a two-word phrase indicating that someone's employment has been terminated, which a certain presidential candidate tried unsuccessfully to claim as his own.

He's a native English speaker who's fluent in Spanish. She grew up in Cameroon speaking French. They're planning a family, and hoping to raise their children to speak all three. What are the best strategies for teaching children to speak more than two languages? The Multilingual Children's Association offers helpful tips.

Offbeat mascot names from Montana include the Powell County Wardens (so named because the high school is in the same county as the Montana State Prison), and the Missoula Loyola Sacred Heart Breakers.

Growing up in Jamaica, a woman used to hear her fashion-designer mother invoke this phrase to indicate that something was good enough, even if it was flawed: A man on a galloping horse wouldn't see it. Variations include it'll never be seen on a galloping horse and a blind man on a galloping horse wouldn't see it. The idea is that the listener to relax and take the long view. The expression has a long history in Ireland and England, and the decades of Irish influence in Jamaica may also account for her mother's having heard it.

The country of Cameroon is so named because a 15th-century Portuguese explorer was so struck by the abundance of shrimp in a local river, he dubbed it Rio dos Camaroes, or "river of shrimp."

The organization Historic Hudson Valley describes the African-American celebration of Pinkster in an exemplary way. It avoids the use of the word slave and instead uses terms such as enslaved people, enslaved Africans, and captives. It's a subtle yet powerful means of affirming that slavery is not an inherent condition, but rather one imposed from outside.

A sixth-grade teacher from San Antonio, Texas, says he and his students are reading The Lord of the Rings. They're curious about the words attercop, which means "spider" (and a relative of the word cobweb) and Tomnoddy, which means "fool."  Grant recommends the book The Ring of Words, as well as these online resources: Why Did Tolkien Use Archaic Language? and A Tolkien English Glossary.

If you're in the Ozarks, you might hear the expression that means the same as water under the bridge or spilled milk: that melon's busted. The idea in all three cases is that something irrevocable has happened, and there's no going back.

A listener from Abilene, Texas, recounts the incredulous reaction he got when he was in England and asked some burly fellows for a dolly, meaning a wheeled conveyance for moving heavy loads. He asked for a two-wheeler, then a hand truck, and finally learned that what they were expecting him to ask for a trolley.  

Madison East High School in Madison, Wisconsin, is the proud home of the Purgolders. That school mascot resembles a golden puma in purple attire, with a portmanteau name that combines those two colors.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

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Hell's Bells (Rebroadcast) - 30 November 2015


Mon, Nov 30, 2015


This week on A Way with Words: The language of restaurant menus. Need a dictionary to get through a dinner menu? Research shows the longer the description of a particular dish, the more expensive it will be. Plus: What's the best way to use a thesaurus? DON'T -- unless, that is, you already know the definition of the word in question. From careless plagiarists to a former president, a look at the embarrassing results when people try using a big word they don't quite understand. Plus, the story behind "Hell's Bells," and what your clothes look like if they're "swarpy." Also, wake vs. awaken, this weekend vs. next weekend, rat-finking, balderdash, Hell's bells!, and widdershins.

FULL DETAILS

Whatever Roget's Thesaurus may have you believe, sinister buttocks is not a synonym for "left behind." But a growing number of students are blindly using the thesaurus, or Rogeting, trying mask plagiarism. And it's not working.

Next Thursday could mean this coming Thursday or the Thursday after. And despite the push to make oxt weekend a term for the weekend after next, even grammarians haven't settled on what next refers to, so it's always important to clarify with the person you're talking to.

Among Grant's candidates for his 2014 Words of the Year list are the phrases I can't even and Can you not.

The origin of the exclamation Balderdash!, meaning "nonsense," isn't entirely known. It is clear, however, that back in the 17th century balderdash could refer to a frothy mix of liquids, such as beer and buttermilk, or brandy and ale, and later to a jumbled mix of words.

The Irish writer Roddy Doyle has some good advice about using a thesaurus: "Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort."

Our quiz guy John Chaneski is back with a game of wedding puns. For example, if Ella Fitzgerald married Darth Vader, she'd be, well, a kind of shoe, or something that might convey you to the top floor of a building.

Hell's Bells!, an exclamation along the lines of darn!, is likely just variation of hellfire, and reinforced by its rhyme.

Back when George W. Bush was a student at a New England prep school, he took to the thesaurus to impress a teacher, and wound up using a synonym for the wrong meaning tear. Hence, the telltale phrase lacerates falling from my eyes wound up in one of his papers.

In addition to being the name of  a plastic toy from the 60's, the term rat fink was once used specifically to mean a narc or stool pigeon. Today, it's used generally to mean a despicable person.

Like the boy when the calf ran over him, I had nothing to say, is an old saying describing someone who's speechless, and goes back to the mid-19th century.

A caller whose wife is from eastern Kentucky says she uses the term swarpy to describe clothing that's too big, ill-fitting, and may even drag on the ground. This term probably derives from an old Scots verb "swap," meaning to "sweep" or "swing," or otherwise "move downward forcibly."

Are we a proverb culture anymore? In a largely urban society, we're not likely to immediately recognize the meaning of the saying between hay and grass, meaning "weak" or "feeble."

The longer the description of an item on a menu, the more expensive it'll likely be. In The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Stanford University linguist Dan Jurafsky  shows that with each extra letter in a menu description, the price goes up about 69 cents. For a really comprehensive collection of menus, from the earliest Chinese American restaurants to old cruise ship menus, we recommend the New York Public Library's menu database.


Spleeny, meaning "hypersensitive" or "hypochondriacal," is chiefly heard in New England and goes back to an old sense of the spleen affecting one's mood.

The writer Clay Shirky tipped us off to a morbid bit of slang used in the dying business of print newspapers, where obituaries are referred to as subscriber countdowns.

Widdershins, also spelled withershins, means "counterclockwise," and can also refer to someone or something that's off or backwards. Another word for "the opposite of widdershins," by the way, is deasil.

Before you insult a man, try walking a mile in his shoes. That way, when you insult him, you're a mile away -- you have his shoes.

For a good time, google wake vs. awaken. Perhaps the most vexing verb in English, the term for waking up still puzzles the experts.

Ingrid Bergman once said, "a kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous."

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Jump Steady - 23 November 2015


Mon, Nov 23, 2015


Secret codes, ciphers, and telegrams. It used to be that in order to transmit information during wartime, various industries encoded their messages letter by letter with an elaborate system--much like today's digital encryption. Grant breaks down some of those secret codes--and shares the story of the most extensive telegram ever sent. Plus, we've all been there: Your friends are on a date, and you're tagging along. Are you a third wheel--or the fifth wheel? There's more than one term for the odd person out. Finally, a rhyming quiz about famous poems. For example, what immortal line of poetry rhymes with: "Prose is a nose is a hose is a pose"? Plus, women named after their mothers, variations on "Happy Birthday," at bay, nannies' charges, and a blues singer who taught us to jump steady.

FULL DETAILS

Great news for scavenger-hunt designers, teenage sleepover guests, and anyone else interested in being cryptic! The old-school commercial codes used for hiding information from the enemy in a telegraphs is at your fingertips on archive.org. Have fun.

If you're single but tagging along on someone else's date, you might be described as a fifth wheel, a term that goes back to Thomas Jefferson's day. Not until much later, after the bicycle had been invented, the term third wheel started becoming more common.

The long popular and newly legal-to-sing "Happy Birthday to You" has always been ripe for lyrical variations, particularly at the end of the song. Some add a cha cha cha or forever more on Channel 4, but a listener tipped us off to another version: Without a shirt!

We spoke on the show not long ago about yuppies and dinks, but neglected to mention silks: households with a single income and lots of kids.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski brings a game of schmoetry—as in, famous lines of poetry where most of the words are replaced with other words that rhyme. For example, "Prose is a nose is a hose is a pose" is a schmoetic take on what famous poem?

A young woman who works as a nanny wants to know why the term charge is used to refer to the youngsters she cares for. Charge goes back to a Latin root meaning, "to carry," and it essentially has to do with being responsible for something difficult. That same sense of "to carry" informs the word charger, as in a type of decorative dinnerware that "carries" a plate.

Plenty of literature is available, and discoverable, online. But there's nothing like the spontaneity, or stochasticity, of browsing through a library and discovering great books at random.

After a recent discussion on the show about garage-sailing, a listener from Henderson, Kentucky, sent us an apt haiku: Early birds gather near a green sea/ Garage doors billow on the morning wind/ Yard-saling.

To jump steady refers to either knocking back booze or knocking boots (or, if you’re really talented, both). It's an idiom made popular by blues singers like Lucille Bogan.

Long distance communication used to be pretty expensive, but few messages have made a bigger dent than William Seward's diplomatic telegram to France, which in 1866 cost him more than $300,000 in today's currency. This pricey message aptly became known as Seward’s Other Folly.

Someone who's being rude or pushy might be said to have more nerves than a cranberry merchant. This idiom is probably a variation on the phrase busier than a cranberry merchant in November, which relates to the short, hectic harvesting season right before Thanksgiving.

The Spanish version of being a fifth wheel on a date is toca el violin, which translates to being the one who plays the violin, as in, they provide the background music. In German, there's a version that translates to, "useless as a goiter."

It's far less common for women in the United States to name their daughters after themselves, but it has been done. Eleanor Roosevelt, for one, is actually Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, Jr.

A listener from Dallas, Texas, wonders why we say here, here to cheer someone on, and there, there to calm someone down. Actually, the phrase is hear, hear, and it's imperative, as in, listen to this guy. There, there, on the other hand is the sort of thing a parent might say to console a blubbering child, as in "There, there, I fixed it."

We spoke on the show not long ago about how the phrase to keep something at bay derives from hunting. A listener wrote in with an evocative description of its origin, referring specifically to that period when cornered prey is able to keep predators away--that is, at bay--but only briefly. It's a poignant moment of bravery.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.
--

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I'll Be Sheep-Dipped (Rebroadcast) - 16 November 2015


Mon, Nov 16, 2015


What a difference pronunciation makes! The United States has a Department of Defense, and an individual might take classes in self-defense. So why do football and basketball coaches say they're proud of their . . . "DEE-fence?" Linguists have a theory about why. Also, some funny limericks to help you learn obscure words, and what you will and won't find on a desert island. Plus, kennings, cobwebs, crestfallen, catillate, cataglossism, and more.

FULL DETAILS

Do you think dictionaries of obsolete words with definitions in limerick form are cool? If you're annuent—meaning “nodding”—we'll take that as a "yes." You'll find lots of them at The Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form, also known as OEDILF.

Sheep-dipping is a business term for when employees are made to drink the Kool-Aid, often at tedious briefings or sales seminars they're forced to attend.

As the OEDILF notes, exspuition's an old word for spitting, which you can do either standing or sitting.

We have a Department of Defense, and football teams have a defense, and chances are you don't pronounce those terms the same way. It likely has to do with sportscasters emphasizing of- and de- to differentiate the offensive and defensive sides of teams, and that's how the emphases took hold.

Put a plate of milk in front of a cat, and you know that cat will catillate.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game that changes Venn diagrams to zen diagrams.

Bespoke, as in bespoke tailored clothing, comes from an old word meaning
"spoken for"—to bespeak means to request or order a good or service.

What could sound more romantic than French kissing? Perhaps its archaic synonym, cataglossism. Here's a limerick to help you remember this word.

Most high schoolers hear the bell ring, and they know it's time for next period. But some students simply refer to each class as first bell, second bell, and so on. What did you call each class period?

Steer clear of the flu. You'll groan on wet sheets. You will mew.

When the crest of a rooster's comb falls down toward their beak, they appear sad, or crestfallen.

Dubbing someone a knight by tapping their shoulder with a sword is a venerable tradition, but that didn't stop a wag from mocking it in limerick form with a groaner of a pun.

Kennings are compound words that have metaphorical meanings, such as whale-road meaning "sea." They're often found in Anglo-Saxon poetry, such as The Seafarer and Beowulf, but there are modern ones as well, such as rugrats for "small children."

Why steal something insignificant when you can brodie it? This slang term means basically the same thing.

Cunctator is just a lesser-known term for a procrastinator—one that happens to fit into a funny limerick.

Cobwebs are the same thing as spiderwebs, and they get their name from the old English term coppe, meaning "spider," which turns up in The Hobbit in a poem about an attercop.

Many desert islands don't look like a desert at all. They're lush and green. That's because the term reflects the old sense of desert meaning "wild and uninhabited."

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Fat Buttery Words (Rebroadcast) - 9 November 2015


Mon, Nov 09, 2015


This week on "A Way with Words": Teaching our children, and some advice for writers. Suppose your child is eager to tackle a difficult subject--ancient Greek, for example--but you know his reach exceeds his grasp? The challenge is to support the child's curiosity without squelching it entirely. And: In just a few years, the United States will be 250 years old. But if a 200-year celebration is a "bicentennial," what do you call a 250-year anniversary? Plus, amusing typos, lay vs. lie, book-bosomed, palaver, I'm so sure!, and more.

FULL DETAILS

Aspiring screenwriters take note: A surefire requisite for breaking into the business has, and will likely always be, a love of words—fat, buttery words, like ones the Marx Brothers writer Robert Pirosh wrote about in his 1934 letter to MGM.

It's been a while since Moon Unit Zappa and the Valley Girl craze slipped out of the popular eye, which is likely why the sarcastic quip, I'm so sure! had one listener tripped up.

To get your fix of amusing typos like, "Illegally parked cars will be fine," and other errors that can't be mentioned on public radio, try the book Just My Typo.

When you think about it, the saying I'm as old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth  makes a good deal of sense. It goes all the way back to the 18th century and Jonathan Swift's Polite Conversation.

All writers should heed the advice of Stephen King: "If you don’t have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write."

Bored? Then this quiz is for you. Our Puzzle Master John Chaneski hits us with a word game where all the answers begin with "ho" or "hum."

The difference between the verbs lay and lie has always been tricky to master, but Bryan Garner has some helpful tips.

People who can't manage to go anywhere without a book might be afflicted with abibliophobia, or perhaps they're just book-bosomed.

You're probably aware that massive is simply a slang term for great or large. But for one professional balloon artist who thought that something massive has to contain actual mass, it took some convincing for him to accept that his giant balloon sculpture could, in fact, be massive.

Whistling girls and cackling hens always come to some bad end, said people in the olden days regarding transgressive women. A variation on this saying pops up in a 1911 book called Folk-Lore of Women by one Reverend Thomas Thiselton-Dyer.

Mark Twain famously said that he'd never write "metropolis" for 7 cents when he could write "city" for the same fee, and it stands as good advice for writers looking to make economical word choices.

Grant's 7-year-old son has gotten into Ancient Greek, of all things. While it's a joy to teach your kids interesting things, a child's eagerness to learn also poses a challenge for parents. You don't want to squelch their curiosity by forcing things too hard.

Store clerks: If someone asks for a case quarter in change, it means they don't want two dimes and a nickel or five nickels. They want a single 25-cent piece. Same for a case dollar, case dime, or case nickel. The customer is asking for a single bill or coin.

The term palaver, meaning an idle or prolonged discussion, comes from the old Portuguese term palavra that British sailors picked up at West African ports in the 1700s, where palaver huts are places where villagers can gather to discuss local affairs.

If you're still hung up on the lay vs. lie rule, here's a poem for you.

We'll be celebrating the United States' 250-year anniversary in about 12 years, and if you're looking for a neat, shiny term for the event, how about bicenquinquagenary, or perhaps sestercentennial?

Why do we eat a frozen dessert to celebrate being born? Because it's sherbert-day! Don't hate us.

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

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Month of Sundays (Rebroadcast) - 2 November 2015


Mon, Nov 02, 2015


This week on "A Way with Words": Modern language with very old origins. If you're on tenterhooks, it means you're in a state of anxious anticipation or suspense. But what IS a tenterhook? The answer goes back to a 15th-century manufacturing process. Also, you probably have a term for those crumbs that collect in the corners of your eyes overnight. They go by lots of names, like "sleep" and "sand" and "eye boogers." But there's a medical term for them as well--one that goes back to ancient Greek. And where in tarnation did we get the word . . . tarnation? Plus, pie charts in other countries, a month of Sundays, euphemisms for vomiting, at the coalface, and the children's game, hull gull.

FULL DETAILS

Pie charts were invented by the Scottish engineer William Playfair, but the name for these visual representations of data came later. In other countries, this type of graph goes by names for other round foods. In France, a pie chart is sometimes called a camembert, and in Brazil, it's a grafico de pizza.

Few actions have as many slang euphemisms as vomiting. The sound itself is so distinct that it's inspired such onomatopoetic terms as ralphing, talking to Ralph on the big white phone or calling Earl.

To be at the coalface means to be on the front lines--working at a practical level, rather than a theoretical one. The phrase is primarily British, and derives from the image of coal miners having direct contact with exposed ore.

Young women used to be warned that a lady's name should appear in the newspaper only three times: at her birth, upon her marriage, and at her death. In much the same way, the admonition Don't get your name all up in the papers means "Don't do something brash"--an allusion to all the negative reasons one might find their name in the news.

What 6-letter combination of initials would make a perfect title for a movie about elderly college athletes? NCAARP! Quiz Guy John Chaneski's puzzle this week features other portmanteau movie titles.

In need of a creative insult? There's always When I'm done with you, there won't be enough left of you to snore.

The idiom I haven't seen you in a coon's age, comes from an old reference to raccoons living a long time. Given the racial sensitivity involving the word, however, it's best to use an alternative.

In Washington, DC, National Park Service employees refer to Ford's Theater as FOTH, Peterson House as PEHO, and the Washington Monument as WAMO.
 
The medical term for that grainy stuff that collects in the corner of your eyes when you sleep is rheum, but why call it that when you could call it sleepy sand or eye boogers?

A 1904 dialect collection tipped us off to this variation on the idea of going to the land of milk and honey: Going to find the honey spring and the flitter tree, flitter being a variant of fritter, as in something fried and delicious.

We talked about passed away versus died on a previous episode, and got a lot of responses on our Facebook page saying that phrases like "I'm sorry for your loss" don't do justice to the reality of what happened.

Trace, used for locales like the Natchez Trace, refers to an informal road, like a deer trail or an Indian trail.

Here's a riddle: What's green and smells like red paint?

Where in tarnation did we get the phrase where in tarnation? Tarnation seems to be a variant of damnation.

To be on tenterhooks, meaning to wait anxiously for something, comes from the tenterhooks on frames used for stretching out wool after it’s washed.

A month of Sundays, meaning "a long period," or "longer than I can actually figure out," goes at least as far back as the 1759 book The Life and Real Adventures of Hamilton Murray.

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Scat Cat - 26 October 2015


Mon, Oct 26, 2015


The dilemma continues over how to spell dilemma! Grant and Martha try to suss out the backstory of why some people spell that word with an "n." At lot of them, it seems, went to Catholic school. Maybe that's a clue? Plus, the saying "Close, but no cigar" gets traced back to an old carnival game. And the French horn isn't actually French—so why in the world do we call it that ? Plus, a word game based on famous ad slogans, the plural form of the computer mouse, a Southern way to greet a sneeze, and remembering a beloved crossword puzzle writer.

FULL DETAILS

The dilemma continues over how to spell dilemma. Are there Catholic school teachers out there still teaching their students to spell it the wrong way, i.e., dilemna?

The saying close but no cigar comes from the famous carnival game wherein a bold fellow tries to swing a sledgehammer hard enough to make a bell ring. The winner of the game, which was popular around 1900, would win a cigar. The game still exists, of course, but tobacco is no longer an appropriate prize for a family game.

Here's a riddle: What seven-letter word becomes longer when the third letter is removed?

The most common plural form of mouse—as in, a computer mouse—is mice. But since the mouse was introduced in the 1960's, tech insiders have applied their own sense of humor and irony to the usage of mice.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game based on nicknames and slogans sure to test your knowledge of both geography and niche comestibles, such as the product sold with the line, That's rich.

We heard from a woman who told her boyfriend about her plan to get her haircut. He responded that he thought that particular style would make her hair "worse." Does the word worse in this case imply that her hair was bad to begin with?

Nook-shotten is an old word meaning that something has many corners or projections. Shakespeare used it in Henry V when he spoke about the nook-shotten isle of Albion.

Scat cat, your tail's on fire is a fun variant of scat cat, get your tail out of the gravy—both of which are Southern ways to say bless you after someone sneezes.

The crossword puzzle community lost an exceptional man when Merl Reagle died recently. Reagle was a gifted puzzle writer and a lovely person who gave his crosswords a sense of life outside the arcane world of word puzzles.

What do you call the phenomenon of running into a dear friend you haven't seen in decades? Deja you, maybe?

The French horn, a beautiful instrument known for its mellow sound, originated as a hunting horn. The French merely added some innovations that made it more of a practical, usable instrument. But professional musicians often prefer to call it simply the horn.

It might be the grooviest new holiday since Burning Man: Hippie Christmas is the annual festivity surrounding the end of the college school year, when students leave perfectly good clothing and household goods by the curb or the dumpster because they don't want to schlep it all back home.

That foam thing you put around a beer or soda can to keep your drink cold and your hand warm is called a koozie. Or a cozy. Or a coozy, or a kozy or any variant of those spellings. It originates from the tea cozy, pronounced with the long o sound. But a patented version with the brand name Koozie came about in the 1980's, making the double-o sound a popular way to pronounce it as well.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

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Tennessee Top Hat - 19 October 2015


Mon, Oct 19, 2015


It's hard enough to get a new word into the dictionary. But what happens when lawmakers get involved? New Jersey legislators passed a resolution as part of an anti-bullying campaign urging dictionary companies to adopt the word "upstander." It means "the opposite of bystander." But will it stick? And: 17th-century abolitionist Sojourner Truth was born in New York State, but for most of her childhood, she spoke only Dutch. There's a good reason for that. Plus, practical tips for learning to converse in any foreign language: Think of it like an exercise program, and work out with a buddy. Also, rhyming slang, kick the bucket, behind God's back, world-beaters, Twitter canoes, a slew of slang terms for that yep-nope hairstyle, the mullet.

FULL DETAILS

Plenty of people write to dictionary editors asking for words to be added. It almost never works. But what if politicians make a special request? To urge adoption of the term upstander, as in "the opposite of bystander," to honor those who stand up to bullies, the New Jersey State Senate passed a resolution urging two dictionary publishers to add it. Unfortunately, dictionaries don't work that way. Even so, whether a word is or isn't in the dictionary doesn't determine whether a word is real.

If you're having difficulty parsing the meaning of the word defugalty, or difugalty, the joke's on you. It's just a goofy play on difficulty, one that's popular with grandparents.

To summer and winter about a matter is an old expression that means "to carry on at great length" about it.

A television journalist in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wants a generic term for "house of worship" to use in place of the word church in news reports. Synagogue, temple, sanctuary, and mosque are all too specific. What's a fitting alternative?
 
Here's a riddle: What flies when it's born, lies when it's alive, and runs when it's dead?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a game based on rhyming words with the word and in the middle. For example, what rhyming phrase is another name for Confederate flag?

A teacher in Dallas, Texas, is trying to learn Spanish in order to chat casually with some of his students. He's having some success with the smartphone app DuoLingo. But an app won't necessarily give him the slang vocabulary he needs. A good way to learn a new language is to approach it as you would a fitness program. Set reasonable goals, commit to the long term, don't expect results overnight, and if possible, practice with a buddy or a trainer.

A Tallahassee listener remembers as a child misunderstanding the sign at the Budget Inn as an exhortation--as in "Bud, get in!"

English rhyming slang had a short run of popularity in the western U.S., thanks in part to Australians who brought it over (and then, again, thanks to a scene in Ocean’s Eleven). But even in the U.K., it's now mostly defunct.

Is there a word for that mind-blowing moment when you think you've heard it all, but then something happens that's completely out of your realm of experience? You might call this phenomenon a marmalade dropper. Others might call it a world-beater.  Have a better term for it?

When a conversation on Twitter gets so crowded that replies contain more handles than actual comments, the result is a tipping Twitter canoe.

For the first nine or ten years of her life, the 17th-century abolitionist Sojourner Truth spoke only Dutch. She later used her accent to great effect in her stirring speeches. As Jeroen Dewulf, director of Dutch Studies at University of California, Berkeley, points out in an article in American Speech, as late as the mid-18th century, there were so many Dutch slaveholders in New York and New Jersey meant that up to 20 percent of enslaved Africans in those states spoke Dutch.

Cutting a check is a far more common phrase than tearing off a check, because for years checks weren't perforated, so bankers had to actual use a metal device to cut them.

The idiom kick the bucket, meaning "to die," does not originate from the concept of kicking a bucket out from under one's feet. It has to do with an older meaning of bucket that refers to the wooden beam often found in a barn roof, where an animal carcass might be hung.

A listener from California says her family's way of remarking on rain is to mention the space between falling drops. So a 12-inch rain means there’s about a foot between one drop and the next. Tricky, huh?

The term skinnymalink, or a skinny marink, is one way the Scots refer to someone who's thin. In the United States, the term goes back to the 1870's.

Kentucky waterfall, North Carolina neck warmer, and Tennessee top hat are all terms for the mullet hairstyle.

To say that something's behind God's back is to say that it's really far away. This may refer to Isaiah 38:17, which includes the phrase for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back. In the Caribbean in particular, the saying behind God's back is idiomatic. Lisa Winer writes of it in detail in her Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad & Tobago.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

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Beat the Band - 12 October 2015


Mon, Oct 12, 2015


This week on "A Way with Words": Can language change bad behavior in crowded places? The Irish Railway system has launched ad campaign to encourage passengers to be more generous at boarding time. For example, have you ever rummaged through your belongings or pretended to have an intense phone conversation in order to keep someone from grabbing the seat next to you? Then you're busted -- there's a word for that! Also, one of America's top experts on garage sales is looking for the right term for that kind of bargain-hunting. Is it garage-sailing? Yard-selling? Or something else? Plus, a Godfather-themed word game you can't refuse. And conversational openers, see-saw vs. teeter-totter, ledged out, scartling, trade-last, and beat the band.

FULL DETAILS

If you're the type of person who wants so badly to sit alone on a train that you have strategies for deterring other passengers from taking the seat next to yours, the Irish train system is onto you. Irish Rail's #GiveUpYourSeat campaign has posters all over trains warning people about frummaging (pretending to rummage through your bag in the seat next to yours) and snoofing (spoof snoozing).  

The guy who may be the nation's foremost garage sale expert called us from Crescent City, California, with a question that's vital for anyone writing or thinking about garage sales: Do the verbs garage-saling or yard-saling refer to the person holding the sale or the shopper visiting the sale?

Someone who looks like the wreck of Hesperus isn't exactly looking their best. The idiom comes from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, inspired by an 1839 blizzard off the coast of Massachusetts that destroyed 20 ships.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski presented a word game we couldn't refuse based on the line in The Godfather, "I’m gonna make him an offer he can't refuse." Except in this game, he can't refuse is replaced with other words that rhyme.

There's no one correct way to pronounce buried, but depending on where you live, it might be common to hear it in a way that rhymes with hurried. As the spelling of the word changed from the original old English version, byrgan, no single standard pronunciation was settled on.

A mobile-phoney, as defined by the Irish rail system's new ad campaign, is someone on a train who pretends to be having a phone conversation in order to prevent fellow passengers from taking the seat next to them.

The exhortation in Shakespeare's Henry V, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends," is now a part of common speech. But not every fan of the Bard knows what a breach is. It's simply a gap—a space between two things.

Scartle is an old Scots word meaning to scrape together little bits of things, like picking the coins and crumbs out of a car seat.

Bill Cosby is perhaps the latest but certainly not the first celebrity whom the public has fallen out of love with over something terrible they did that went public. Is there a term for this kind of mass disenchantment with a celebrity?

Goggle-bluffing is the train passenger's trick of averting your line of eyesight so as to fool other passengers into not taking the seat next to you.

The first occasion when a new mother sees company after having a baby is called the upsitting. But upsitting in certain cultures is also used to describe a courtship ritual where two people on either sides of a thin partition get to flirt with each other. William Charles Baldwin talks about it in his book, African Hunting, From Natal to Zambesi.

What do you call the piece of playground equipment with a long board and spots for a kid to sit on either end and make it go up and down? A see-saw? A teeter-totter? A flying jenny, or a joggling board? The term you're most familiar with likely has to do with where you grew up.

When hiking off-trail, it's important to keep an eye on where you've been as well as where you're going. Otherwise, you run the risk of what experienced hikers call being ledged out, which means you've descended to a point where you can't go any farther, but you've slid down so far that you can't go back up and try a different route. It's a good metaphor for life as well.

A trade-last, also known as a told-last, is a compliment that's relayed to the intended recipient by someone else.

We've spoken on the show before about conversation openers that differ from the often dreaded "What do you do?" and we heard from one listener who prefers "What keeps you busy?"

Beat the band, as in, it's snowing to beat the band, or he's dressed to beat the band, is an idiom that's mainly used as a positive intensifier. It evolved from shouting to beat the band, meaning someone is talking so loudly they can be heard over the music.

Billennials, or bilingual millennials, is a new term being bandied about by marketers and television programmers who've realized that young Americans who grew up in Spanish-speaking homes don't necessarily care for the traditional telenovela style shows on Spanish language networks.

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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Fighting Artichokes - 5 October 2015


Mon, Oct 05, 2015


What's in a mascot name? Maybe you're a fan of the Banana Slugs, or you cheer for the Winged Beavers. Perhaps your loyalty lies with the Fighting Artichokes. There are some strange names for sports team out there. But what's even stranger is the origin of the word "mascot" itself. It's from a 19th-century opera! And: the host of a television show about gardening is tired of using the verb "to plant," and is desperate for an alternative. But coming up with one is harder than you might think! Plus, a word for that sinking feeling when your favorite restaurant closes. Also, a word quiz based on the party game Taboo, the history of cataract, a begrudging ode to office jargon, and an old children's song about popping the heads off of flowers.

FULL DETAILS

Come From Away, a new musical about the 7000 passengers whose planes were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, after the September 11th attacks, is not only a fine piece of theater. It's also a rich trove of Newfoundland language, including come from away, a noun that means "visitor."

Evergreen State College in Washington is certainly in the running for best school mascot, with the Geoduck. But you can’t forget the UC Santa Cruz Fighting Banana Slugs, or the Scottsdale Community College Fighting Artichokes. The term mascot itself was popularized by a 19th century French comic opera, called La mascotte. The word is also related to the Spanish term for "pet," mascota.

The Dictionary of Newfoundland English offers a look at some intriguing vocabulary from that part of the world, such as the expression best kind, meaning "in the best state or condition."

If you pronounce roof to rhyme with hoof, you're not alone. Millions of people all over the U.S. say it that way, though the pronunciation with the long o sound is more common.

You're not a true resident of Poca, West Virginia, if you're not cheering on the local high school, the Poca Dots.

Quiz Guy John Chaneski brought us a puzzle based on one of his favorite party games: Taboo. If he gave you a series of terms that all match up with a certain word—like car, clock, burglar, and siren—what word would you say goes with them?

We got a call from Nan Sterman, host of the public television gardening show A Growing Passion, who writes so much about plants that she's looking for some alternatives to the verb to plant. But what to say if you don't want to sound pretentious or stilted? What about variations such as Stick that little guy in the soil, or Bury that gem in a pot?

Fair weather to you, and snow to your heels, is one way for Newfoundlanders to wish each other good luck.

The Fibber McGee drawer is that essential place where you quickly shove a bunch of junk when you need to clean up fast and don't have the time or care to organize anything. It comes from the old radio comedy, Fibber McGee and Molly, which featured a running gag in which Fibber had a closet crammed with junk that fell cacophonously to the floor whenever he opened it.

The high school in Hoopeston, Illinois, calls its teams the Hoopeston Area Cornjerkers, and in Avon, Connecticut, the Avon Old Farms Winged Beavers are a beloved hockey team. In case you're shopping for school districts.

A cataract is not only an eye condition, it's also a waterfall. And the two uses of the word are related, in the sense that in the ancient world, a cataracta was one of those iron gates that hung outside a city, such as Pompeii, to protect against invading hoardes.

A chemist who spent years working in the pharmaceutical industry sent us an amusing sendup of corporatespeak that begins, "It is what it is, so let's all reach out and circle the wagons…" Although his jargon-laden riff wonderfully satirizes such cliched writing, it's worth noting that many find the phrase circle the wagons objectionable.

Biting the bit, akin to champing at the bit, means someone's raring to go, or out of control.

Expressions like, I don't not like that, or, You can't not like being out are, are versions of litotes, a rhetorical device used for expressing understatement.

In Newfoundland, the word wonderful is often used as an intensifier for both positive and negative things. For example, a Newfoundlander might refer to something as a wonderful loss.

There's an old children’s ditty that goes, Mama had a baby and its head popped off, which you sing while popping the top off of a dandelion or similar flower.

Is there a word for when your favorite restaurant closes? What about goneappetit?

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

Phone:
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Burn Bag - 28 September 2015


Mon, Sep 28, 2015


This week on "A Way with Words": Slang from the 19th century. The slang coming out of Victorian mouths was more colorful than you might think. A 1909 collection of contemporary slang records clever terms for everything from a bald head to the act of sidling through a crowd. Plus, how to remember the difference between CAV-al-ry and CAL-va-ry. And: what's the best way to improve how introverts are perceived in our society? For starters, don't bother asking for help from dictionary editors. Also, collieshangles, knowledge box, nanty narking, biz bag, burn bag, yuppies, and amberbivalence.

FULL DETAILS

Mind the grease is a handy phrase to use when you're trying to sidle through a crowd. It's found in 1909 volume of English slang called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Speaking of greasy, in those days something extravagant might be described as butter upon bacon.

If you're telling a story involving someone with an accent, and while relaying what so-and-so said, you imitate that person's accent, is that cool? If your retelling starts to sound offensive or gets in the way of good communication, best to try paraphrasing rather than performing.

Collieshangles is an old Scottish term for a quarrel, possibly deriving from the notion of two collie dogs fighting.

We've previously discussed the term going commando, meaning "dressed without underwear." It first appears in print in 1974, but likely goes back further than that. The scene in a 1996 episode of Friends, wherein Joey goes commando in Chandler's clothes, likely popularized the saying.

A Chicago-area listener suggests that approaching to a yellow traffic light and deciding whether or not to go for it might be described as amberbivalence. It's somewhat like that decision you face when coming toward what you know is a stale green light—do you gun it or brake it?

Quiz Guy John Chaneski wasn't savvy enough way back when to snag an email address like john@aol.com, but he was clever enough to come up with a game about apt email addresses that serve as a pun on the word at. For example, a prescient lawyer might have claimed attorney@law.com.

What's the difference between cavalry and calvary? The first of these two refers to the group of soldiers on horseback, and is a linguistic relative of such "horsey" words as caballero, the Spanish horse-riding gentleman, and cavalcade, originally a "parade of horses." The word calvary, on the other hand, derives from the Latin calvaria, "skull," and refers to the hill where Jesus was crucified, known in Aramaic as Golgotha, or "place of the skull."

Knowledge box is an old slang term for noggin; one 1755  describes someone who "almost cracked his knowledge box."

An introvert in Baltimore, Maryland, is unhappy with an online definition of introvert, and is speaking up about wanting it changed. The definition describes an introvert as someone preoccupied with their own thoughts and feelings—such as a selfish person, or a narcissist. The problem is, Google's definitions come from another dictionary, and dictionary definitions themselves come from perceived popular usage. So the way to change a definition isn't to petition lexicographers, but to change the popular understanding of a term.

What's the female equivalent of a man cave? Some people are promoting the term she shed.

Ann Patchett, the author of This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, among other books, has some great advice about writing. She says the key is to practice writing several hours a day for the sheer joy of getting better, and find the thing that you alone can say.

The term biz bag, meaning a bag to stuff your discarded items in, comes from an old commercial for Biz stain-removing detergent.

If you're looking for a little nanty narking, try going back to the 19th century and having a great time, because that's a jaunty term the British used for it back then.

Betamax players and hair metal bands may be trapped in the 1980's, but the term yuppie, meaning "young urban professional," is alive and well. Dink, meaning dual income, no kids, is also worth throwing around in a marketing presentation.

In the world of covert secret agents, a burn bag is the go-to receptacle for important papers you'd like to have burned rather than intercepted by the enemy.

A listener from Santa Monica, California, says he's going to mow something down, as in, he's going to eat a huge amount of food really fast. But when he writes it, he spells mow as mau, and pronounces it to rhyme with cow. Ever heard of this?

A fly-rink, in 19th-century slang, is a bald head—perfect for flies to skate around on!

This episode is hosted by Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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Lord Love a Duck (Rebroadcast) - 21 September 2015


Mon, Sep 21, 2015


This week on "A Way with Words": Someone should write a love letter to a new book called "Letters of Note." It's a splendid collection of all kinds of correspondence through the ages: Elvis Presley fans writing to the president, children making suggestions to famous cartoonists, a scientist's poignant love letter to his late wife. Then there's correspondence in the digital age: Grant and Martha talk about how to emphasize something in an email, and when it helps to use emoticons. Also, the fabric called blue jean is much, much older than you might think. Plus, Lord love a duck, man in the moon, bacon and eggs vs. eggs and bacon, white-liver widows, and a vinegar-and-ketchup sauce called julep.

FULL DETAILS

Letters of Note, a book based on the website of the same name, is a collection of funny, moving, and insightful letters from both famous people and nobodies.

Which comes first in this favorite breakfast combo: bacon and eggs, or eggs and bacon? Neither are totally idiomatic, but bacon and eggs is most common.

Emphasizing one word over another, especially in written correspondence, makes a huge difference in the meaning of a sentence. And if all caps or italics don't do the trick in an email, consider using an emoticon.

Since Adobe released the photo-editing program Photoshop in 1988, to photoshop has become a common verb, which got shortened to just shop. Now people are using the hashtag lazyshop, where you just describe the changes you would have made to a photo if you'd actually had the energy to photoshop it.

Our Quiz Guy John Chaneski has a name game for famous folks who could use a different surname because of their trade.

The term white-livered, like lily-livered, can describe someone timid.  But an old folk tradition, once common in the South, associates having a white liver or white spots on one's liver with an insatiable sexual appetite.  The terms white-livered widow, or white- livered widder refers to a woman who has a series of husbands who died shortly after they married, presumably because she simply wore them out physically.

The fabric called denim originated in the town of Nimes, France, hence the name. The fabric known as jean, originally from Genoa, Italy was popular long before Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis and teamed up in 1873 to make durable work trousers using jean and duck cloth. 

In 1958, when Elvis Presley joined the Army, some adoring fans sent a letter to President Eisenhower begging him not to let them shave The King's sideburns.

The word julep, from Persian terms meaning "rose water," usually refers to a mint-and-bourbon alcoholic beverage with a kick as strong as a Kentucky Derby winner. But one family from North Carolina has a sauce they call julep: a half-empty bottle of ketchup mixed with apple cider vinegar. We've never heard of such a thing -- have you?

Two years after his wife died of tuberculosis at the age of 25, physicist Richard Feynman wrote her an extraordinarily touching letter that remained sealed until after his death.

Eudora Welty dropped the phrase man in the moon a couple times in her short story "Why I Live at the P.O." The phrase doesn't really reference the moon itself; it simply adds emphasis. Incidentally, seeing the image of a face or human figure in the moon is an example of pareidolia. 

Some of the best things in the book Letters of Note are letters from kids to adults. One young fan's plea to Charles Schultz that he remove a character from Peanuts was actually met with approval.

When someone says they should be bored for the hollow horn, it's typically a lighthearted way of saying they should have their own head examined. The saying comes from an old supposed disease of cattle that made them dull and lethargic, and diagnosed by boring a hole in one of their horns.

In an earlier episode, we talked about regretting what you name your child, and we got a call from a mother who named her son Bodie and found that the name didn't travel so well. In France, people thought his name was "Body."

The history of the exclamation Lord love a duck! is unclear, but it may be a euphemism for a rhyming curse word or for the mild oath For the love of Christ!

This episode was hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett.

--

A Way with Words is funded by its listeners: http://waywordradio.org/donate

Get your language question answered on the air! Call or write with your questions at any time:

Email: words@waywordradio.org

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